Waking Life (2001)

I’ve been watching the oddest films lately (eyes on you, Maki). Waking Life is no exception, but it stands out as probably the strangest movie I’ve ever encountered. This digital animation of a live-action recording follows an unnamed protagonist through a series of dreams featuring discourses on language, destruction, collective memory, existence and free will, among other topics. But although he initially enjoys this persistent dream state, he eventually endeavors to exit the cycle and in his desperation resorts to consulting his own mind’s characters about the possibility of returning to reality.

“Dream is destiny,” a little girl tells a younger version of the main character in the film’s opening scene. At first a mere product of a paper game, this statement becomes the defining prediction of the boy’s life. Dreams become his destiny, whether he wants it or not. At the same time, Waking Life allows its viewers to share in the same fate through digital manipulation. Its combination of animated effects creates a visual experience that mimics, or at least recalls, the blurring of illusion and reality that too often happens in dreams.

I did like this movie to the extent that I found its script interesting and recognized the vision behind it, but its overall monotony and lack of narrative prevented me from enjoying it. With no plot or setting and only a vague hint of character, it didn’t really have much of anything to propel it forward. The monologues proved interesting enough to hold my attention for a while, but from the middle part onwards I kept hoping for something else to capture me visually. None came. Instead the swirling colors and shifting outlines (plus my raging astigmatism) combined to induce a headache in me. At one point I stopped watching altogether and simply listened. I only looked whenever conversations stopped to note scene transitions. I didn’t feel like I missed anything.

I recognize the experimentation in this film and applaud it (avant-garde is the way to go!), but I didn’t enjoy its length. Perhaps if it had been shorter, I would have appreciated it more. The movie oversaturated my mind with ideas, and not in a good way. I loved the monologues individually, but their presentation as a seemingly endless succession just didn’t do it for me. By the end, I didn’t want to listen to them anymore. The closing credits came with relief.

‘Tell you what, go three up more streets, take a right, go two more blocks, drop this guy off on the next corner.’ ‘Where’s that?’ ‘I don’t know either, but it’s somewhere, and it’s gonna determine the course of the rest of your life.’

‘So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed, it’s unspeakable. And yet, when we communicate with one another, and we feel that we have connected, and we think we are understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think that’s what we live for.’

‘We’re irresistibly drawn to that almost orgiastic state created out of death and destruction. It’s in all of us. We revel in it.’

‘I mean, yeah, maybe I only exist in your mind. I’m still just as real as anything else.’

‘They did this study. They isolated a group of people over time, and they monitored their abilities at crossword puzzles in relation to the general population. And then they secretly gave them a day-old crossword, one that had already been answered by thousands of other people. Their scores went up dramatically, like twenty percent. So it’s like once the answers are out there, you know, people can pick up on ‘em. It’s like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.’

‘…it’s like we go through life with our antennas bouncing off one another, continuously on ant autopilot, with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?” “Credit or debit?” “You want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw. I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?’

‘The worst mistake that you can make is to think you’re alive when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room.’


2 thoughts on “Waking Life (2001)

  1. theburningpulpit

    This movie! Ma’am Jackie made us watch this.

    I liked the concept of the movie–it’s not really character-driven or plot-driven, but fueled by concept. The basic idea was to question what is real and what is a dream. But as our prof pointed out, the point was kinda moot because if you experience your dreams as your waking life, then your dreams become your reality. I guess the “problem” of the movie is that it’s very Descartes, desperate in finding an indubitable certainty, an exit into the “illusion” of dreaming. The movie overly focuses on the time-debunked question, “how can I be certain?” This problem, which I think is an unnecessary one to problematize, is what causes the headaches. And this question pales before the more pressing matter, “regardless of the certainty of my experience and being, what should I do?”

    Aaanyway, TL;DR again. Sorry. But really, this movie! And the “Before Sunrise/Sunset” cameo! Linklater is the shiz.

    1. Mich Post author

      Oh God. I remember reading this comment before and thinking, “I’ll reply to this as soon as my brain starts working properly.” But then my brain malfunctioned even more and I forgot. Sorry, Heinz! I only stumbled on this again now.

      I wouldn’t call the film’s existential problem unnecessary, although I understand why the more practical question of “What should I do?” seems more appealing. Neither issue, however, seems worthy of a full-length, purely conceptual film. Had there been something else overlaying the idea, I’m sure I would have appreciated the movie better. As it is, however, it seems too stripped-down and bare to merit 90 minutes of undivided attention.


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