Waking Life

Our final departure is scheduled

USA, 2001. Rated R. 99 minutes. Written and directed by Richard Linklater.

This analysis is divided into an introduction and four parts that may be read independently or sequentially.

  I. The Making of Waking Life
 II. The Play-by-Play
III. What It All Means
IV. Yeah, But Is It Any Good?

Parts II, III, and IV contain spoilers and are intended for people who have already seen the film.


Grade: C Analysis and commentary by Carlo Cavagna

Back to Introduction
Back to Part I
Back to Part II

Back to Part III

IV.  Yeah, But Is It Any Good? A Critical Commentary

There is no dispute: Waking Life is an innovative film. Intelligent, challenging, noble--these words could also be used to describe it. However, other words can legitimately be used to describe Waking Life, too: confused, unfocused, superficial, pretentious. Intelligence and nobility of purpose are enough to make a film not bad, but they aren't in themselves enough to make a film good.

Let's talk about the story. As the thematic description and analysis in Parts II and III should make clear, there barely is one. A guy tries to figure out if he's dreaming or awake. His journey amounts to bumping into dozens of random people, who assault him with their views on life and consciousness. Who is this guy? He's everyone and no one. He mostly just listens, the way Linklater hopes the audience will listen--he's not a character, but a surrogate for us, the viewers. Through him, the other characters talk to us, or more precisely, at us. Since we don't know anything about this non-character, we have no emotional stake in his fate. Why should we care if he's alive or dead? The subject of dreams (what are they? where do they come from? what do they mean?) is a fascinating one, but the issue of whether this particular person is dreaming or awake, is not.

In a sense, Waking Life is more a documentary than a work of fiction, because most of the speakers play themselves and talk about their real views. But what is Waking Life documenting? Though Waking Life has a point of view, it doesn't have a cohesive argument or reach any clearly thought-out conclusions. Mostly it is documenting a bunch of people's thoughts on free will and dreams, and arguing that the issues it raises are exciting and important. However, just because we should spend time thinking about the themes covered in Waking Life doesn't mean it's fun being told to do so over and over.

Sometimes, watching Waking Life is provocative and riveting; other times, it is like being unable to escape a party full of name-dropping, black turtleneck-clad intellectuals in John Lennon glasses, all talking at you in turn. (And, unlike such a party, you can't even jump in with your own thoughts.) The film is circular and repetitive, working the same ground over and over again. Wiley WigginsSome fascinating ideas are developed, but it's a lot of work to pull out the common threads. Like a dream, Waking Life is not a logical progression of conversations. The thoughts in Waking Life do not so much build to something as they just kind of amass in a big pile.

Every once in awhile, a movie comes out that has critics falling over themselves to prove how intellectual they are and launch into the usual diatribes about how Hollywood just doesn't get it (often true, but not always). Waking Life is such a movie. It's ordained as a Major Achievement because it deals with Important Things and is Intelligent, regardless of how accomplished a film it actually is.

Even so, without the extraordinary animation, it's a good bet that at least some of those same critics would be falling over themselves to denounce Waking Life. Imagine if Waking Life had been released as the live-action film it was before it was painted over. The aimlessness and repetitiveness would be laid bare. Some may say that the animation is an intrinsic part of Waking Life, inseparable from the rest of the film. Bollocks. I've just separated them in the analysis, haven't I? Waking Life is not a painting, or even a gallery of paintings. It is a film. The animation is the form, and the content is the substance.

If it were true that the visuals and the content are inseparable, you would have to be able to say that the visual elements do more than enhance and communicate the ideas that are already there. This is the case with a movie like Wings of Desire, whose visual elements are the story and thematic content. Reading the script would tell you almost nothing about the film. Reading the script of Waking Life would tell you everything about the film except what it looks like, impressive as that look may be. To declare Waking Life a great film because of how it looks is to prioritize form over substance.

Looking past the animation, Waking Life is quite similar to Linklater's previous films. If the idea of a guy wandering around and encountering a bunch of people who tell him peculiar stuff sounds familiar, it's because Linklater employed pretty much the same sprawling structure in his debut, Slacker. Except for The Newton Boys (a straightforward crime caper), he hasn't deviated much from that structure. Heck, Slacker begins with a young traveler waking on a bus and describing his dream to a taxi driver who picks him up at the station--not so different from Waking Life. Two years after Slacker came Dazed and Confused, another sprawling film in which people do a lot of hanging out and talking. Linklater's next film was Before Sunrise, in which Hawke and Delpy spend all night conversing as they roam the streets of Vienna. In subUrbia…more aimless hanging around and talking.

Aside from its style and narrative structure, Waking Life contains several references to and elements in common with Linklater's earlier films. Characters and actors reprise roles, locations are reused (the Circle A convenience store from subUrbia, the Paramount Theater from The Newton Boys), and the same ideas come up. Waking Life is part of the same cinematic continuum, which may mean that Linklater has a unified artistic vision, or it may mean that he is overly obsessed with his previous works, like Kevin Smith.

Linklater's work is governed by film theorist André Bazin's concept of "cinema de la realité." Bazin's belief that movies should forget about narrative and try to reproduce reality in order to capture the "holy moment" (see scene 20) is a virtuous one, but it's also quite constricting, particularly if, like Linklater, you take it to mean that you should just follow people around with a camera and record conversations in all your films, regardless of whether there's a story or even a point. Cinema has quite decisively proved that it is a storytelling medium, neither qualitatively better nor worse than the stage or the novel, just different. Bazin's ideas cannot have been quite so rigid, though, if one his favorite films was Citizen Kane, a film full of story, unusual though the narrative structure may be. There is room in moviedom for both cinema de la realité and traditional storytelling. The cinema would fast become a dreary art form if all films were made according to the same principles and ideas.

There is a point to Waking Life, despite what one may assume after having read this far. To suggest otherwise is unfair. The overarching message is an existential one--that we should refuse to be passive observers in the world, appreciate every moment, and live our lives to the fullest. This is no different from the core message of dozens of other recent movies, such as American Beauty, though Waking Life goes further in an anti-societal, anarchist direction. Waking Life fuses its existential message with ideas taken from Jung and his descendants, arguing that all reality is subjective and that dreams can be the portal to existential self-individuation and enlightenment.

Waking Life's most immediate purpose, however, is to awaken interest in philosophy, psychology, and physics, challenging people to think about metaphysical issues they normally ignore. It simply appears that Linklater has made some baffling choices in pursuit of that goal. The characters don't talk like normal people; they race through ideas and drop dozens of Big Names. The film covers so much ground that many concepts are treated superficially, which, as one member of the AboutFilm Movie Boards community has cuttingly remarked, results in "cartoon philosophy" from "cartoon intellectuals." (Okay, so this isn't cartoon animation, but the quote sounds good that way.) The ideas come fast and furious, and in no apparent order. Unless you are a scholar of philosophy or psychology, the only way to sort it all out is to see the movie more than once, take reams of notes, and research all the names and ideas you don't recognize.

So how does Linklater hope to connect with an audience not already interested in these ideas? No doubt through the groovy animation, but the animation does not suffice. Waking Life comes off as a documentary of stuff Linklater finds interesting and a laundry list of Impressive Authors he's read, replete with references to his previous films. As such, it's an incredibly self-involved piece of filmmaking. up a pole; all talk and no actionLinklater seems more concerned with hearing himself speak than communicating. If you aren't already interested, he probably won't draw you in.

More damningly, Waking Life is a shamelessly elitist film. One of the first speeches in the film is about how existentialism is misunderstood, but that presupposes that existentialism is understood in the first place. Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Debord…Waking Life mentions the names but provides no background. If Linklater hopes to inspire people who don't normally think about such things, talking over their heads is not an effective tactic. The inclusion of Louis Mackey's remark that the gap between Plato and Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between the average human and a chimp betrays Linklater's true regard for the people he's presumably trying to reach.

Mackey also wonders whether the most universal human characteristic is fear or laziness. In Linklater's case, it must be laziness, because if he had made more of an effort to marshal his thoughts into a coherent movie, he might be doing more than attracting the interest of people who are already interested. Like the animation, the ideas in Waking Life float about without an anchor. The fact that Linklater has structured his movie as a dream is no excuse. We are not all dream psychologists. Complex questions and challenging ideas are welcome, but Linklater's choices have narrowly confined his audience to people who already think like he does and see the world like he does.

Linklater has bothered, however, to include some clever postmodern remarks in Waking Life to fend off criticism. At the end of the film (scene 33) Linklater himself says that, yeah, he knows listening to another person's dream isn't usually very interesting. Before that, Soderbergh's anecdote about Wilder and Malle disparages movies about dreams, ha, ha. The woman who talks about language comments, "Words are inert--they're dead." Despite such disarming quips, words are what Waking Life is, and all the undulating, oscillating imagery in the world cannot bring them to life.

Waking Life talks about identity, dreams, consciousness, and free will. Other movies--even popular movies like Blade Runner, Dark City, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A.I.--actually deal with those issues. They are movies that draw us in with character and story in order to probe the nature of consciousness and identity with us, testing our generally-accepted definitions and taking clear positions of their own. The newly released Vanilla Sky (a big-budget Hollywood film, no less!) deals with precisely the same themes of reality's subjectivity and self-individuation through dreams. It, however, manages to construct an actual story out of the same concepts Linklater finds so fascinating. (One might say the same about Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive.) The animation in Waking Life is worth seeing, and the issues it raises are worth pondering. When it comes to cinematic explorations of these issues, though, the storytelling and communication of those other films is like the transcendent connection one finds in making love to a devoted partner. By comparison, Waking Life amounts to little more than isolated--and not terribly fulfilling--masturbation.

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Analysis and commentary © January 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Fox and its related entities. All Rights Reserved.

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