Martin’s quirky movies # 2 Waking Life

May 11, 2013

Who needs Class B drugs when you’ve got this film?

This is the question The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw posed in his review of Waking Life, one of the most thought provoking films I’ve ever seen. I first saw it on DVD seven or eight years ago, and since then I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. The film’s unidentified hero, played by Wiley Wiggins, wanders from one and place to another, meeting people who espouse their theories about the nature of existence and reality. Wiley seems to be in a dream, and complains that although he knows it’s a dream, he just can’t wake up. This complaint alludes to a phenomenon known as “lucid dreaming”, where you dream while being aware that you are dreaming. Its practitioners seek to control and guide their dreams, discovering things beyond their capacity to understand in their awake state. For some New Agers it is an essential tool for self-improvement and personal growth.

Distinguishing between dream and reality has engaged writers, philosophers and filmmakers. The dream argument posits that we have no way of determining conclusively at any moment whether or not we are dreaming. For Descartes this mere possibility was sufficient to undermine knowledge. This has been a popular subject for popular entertainment. Open Your Eyes and Inception are two examples. And we shouldn’t forget the ninth season of Dallas, which was revealed to have all been a dream of Pam.

The director of Waking Life, Richard Stuart Linklater, was born in Houston, Texas. He attended the Sam Houston State University but dropped out midway through the course to work on an off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While working on the rig he did a lot of reading and on land he loved going to theatre and cinema. He realized he wanted to be a filmmaker. Using the money he had saved, he bought a Super-8 camera, a projector, and some editing equipment, and moved to Austin, where he enrolled in the community college to study film in the autumn of 1984. Since making It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books in 1988, Linklater has made another 18 films including Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995) School of Rock (2003), Before Sunset (2004), Bad News Bears (2005) A Scanner Darkly (2006) Fast Food Nation (2006) and Me and Orson Welles (2008).

Waking Life took just three weeks to shoot cameras and another three to edit. But that was not the end of the process. It took a team of 30 animation artists 15 months to animate the film; they spent up to 250 hours to make one minute of animation. They used a technique called rotoscoping, in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame. The animators’ initial brief had been to interpret the scenes literally, but they went beyond this – painting pictures of what the people were saying. The result is beautiful, unlike anything I have seen before or since; the rotoscope effect lends each shot an ethereal and unreal touch. Though it was a very labour-intensive, the film was a bargain compared to a typical Disney or Pixar production, which might cost ten or fifteen times more. This enabled Linklater to take more risks. He ended up making a surreal cartoon that explores adult subject matter, something that Hollywood seems to shy away from these days. And that’s what I want to look at now – the ideas that Wiley Wiggins, encounters on his journey. There are so many it is impossible to do justice to them all. I can only give you a flavour of the film.

Wiley attends a philosophy lecture by philosophy professor Robert Solomon, at the University of Texas at Austin. Solomon wants to challenge our preconceptions about existentialism, presenting it as a philosophy of freedom. After class Solomon explains his rejection of postmodernist philosophy. The view that humans are merely social constructions is a cop-out; we are ultimately responsible for who we are and what we do.

Kim Krizan, a screenwriter discusses the nature of language as a system of signs. What she finds incredible is not that we are capable of creating words for tangible things such as trees, but how words convey abstract concepts such as love or frustration. For Krizan when we create them we have a kind of spiritual communion. This feeling might be transient, but it is what makes life worth living.

Eamonn Healy, a chemistry professor at Austin states that we are beginning a new kind of evolution, which is much faster. Healy is a cyber-optimist whose ideas seem similar to the concept of technological transcendence known as the singularity that has been proposed by Ray Kurzweil among others. Some suggest that we will be able to upload our minds into cyberspace.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their role in Before Sunrise. Jesse and Celine talk about recent studies of the brain activity of sleeping or dying people which show that a lifetime of experiences can be condensed into a few actual minutes of activity. They also discuss the notion of collective memory, a view articulated by Rupert Sheldrake, which involves a large pool of knowledge that we all draw from. Jesse states that this would explain seemingly spontaneous world-wide innovative leaps in science and the arts, prompted by people working independently of each other.

UT Austin philosophy professor David Sosa doesn’t allow much room for free will.  His deterministic view posits that there is no place for free action in a world governed by physical laws. Since human beings are physical entities they must be subject to these same laws.

Talk show host Alex Jones is one of America’s most famous conspiracy theorists. Recently he claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing had been staged. Here he is driving through the city and ranting through a PA system mounted on his car. He urges us to reclaim our freedom. It is up to us.

English professor Lisa Moore sits in a restaurant with author Carole Dawson discussing the problem of human identity over time. They discuss a theory by Benedict Anderson that we need to construct a story in order to connect, for example, a photograph of ourselves as an infant with who we are now.

The monkey in the classroom expresses the views of Steve Fitch, a photographer and musician. According to Fitch, art is the language that humans created to distance ourselves from our empty and degraded human past and reach for a new world.

UT Austin philosophy professor Louis Mackey argues that the gap between the average person and Plato is greater than the gap between the average person and chimpanzees. Due to our inherent laziness true genius is rarely achieved, largely because of human laziness.

Poet Timothy “Speed” Levitch states that self-awareness consists of discovering that you are a protagonist in someone else’s dream.

 The last encounter in the film is with a man playing pinball, played by Linklater himself. He discusses a theory by the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, from a speech called “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, that time is just a distraction.  It’s really 50 AD, but there’s an evil spiritual force is trying to make us forget that the kingdom of God is around us .

Waking Life asks fundamental questions about life. It does not provide definitive answers. Some ideas are outlandish. I love the way the film blends such differing views of the world. I am a sceptic, but I have always been fascinated by how we can come to such startlingly different interpretations of how the world works. I devour conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. I don’t buy Rupert Sheldrake’s collective memory or the singularity. I am fascinated by the border between science and pseudoscience. Alfred Wegener was ridiculed for his theory of continental drift. I don’t know what to make of superstring theory. It can be difficult for a layman yo distinguish the two but there is a nice maxim in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As usual Carl Sagan has an apposite quote:

But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Many of the problems raised in Waking Life haven’t been solved in more than three and a half millennia of philosophical investigation. If there were any real answers, someone would surely come up with them by now. I have no difficulty embracing doubt and uncertainty.   And I can recommend the journey.

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Waking Life quotes

May 11, 2013

Here is a selection of quotes from the film:

Bill Wise: It’s like you come onto this planet with a crayon box. Now you may get the 8-pack, or you may get the 16-pack…but it’s all in what you do with the crayons, the colors that you’re given. Don’t worry about drawing within the lines, or coloring outside the lines; I say color outside the lines, you know what I mean? Color right off the page. Don’t box me in!

Robert Solomon: The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity, is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I’m afraid we’re losing the real virtues of living life passionately in the sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feel good about life. Existentialism is often discussed as if it’s, a philosophy of despair, but I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre, once interviewed, said he never really felt a day of despair in his life.

Kim Krizan: Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration and this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival. Like you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or saber tooth tiger right behind you. We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting I think is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is like… frustration? Or what is anger or love? When I say love, the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love, and they register what I’m saying and they say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable. And yet you know, when we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.

Eamonn Healy: So, you produce a neo-human with a new individuality, a new consciousness. But, that’s only the beginning of the evolutionary cycle because as the next cycle proceeds, the input is now this new intelligence. As intelligence pods on intelligence, as ability pods on ability, the speed changes. Until what? Until you reach a crescendo. In a way, it could be imagined as an almost instantaneous fulfillment of human, human and neo-human, potential. It could be something totally different. It could be the amplification of the individual…the multiplication of individual existences, parallel existences, now with the individual no longer restricted by time and space. And the manifestations of this neo-human type evolution could be dramatically counter-intuitive; That’s the interesting part. The old evolution is cold, it’s sterile, it’s efficient. And, its manifestations are those social adaptations. We’re talking about parasitism, dominance, morality, war, predation. These will be subject to de-emphasis. These will be subject to de-evolution. The new evolutionary paradigm will give us the human traits of truth, of loyalty, of justice, of freedom. These will be the manifestations of the new evolution, and that is what we would hope to see from this, that would be nice.

Celine: … about reincarnation and where all the new souls come from over time. Everybody always says they are the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Alexander the Great. I always want to tell them they were probably some dumbfuck like everybody else. I mean, it’s impossible. Think about it. The world population has doubled in the past 40 years, right? So if you really believe in that ego thing of one eternal soul, then you have only 50% chance of your soul being over 40, and for it to be over 150 years old, then it’s only one out of six.

Ethan: It’s like there’s this whole telepathic thing going on that we’re all a part of, whether we’re conscious of it or not. That would explain why there are all these seemingly spontaneous worldwide innovative leaps in science and the arts, you know, like the same results popping up everywhere independent of each other. Some guy on a computer figures something out, and then almost simultaneously a bunch of other people all over the world figure out the same thing. They did this study where they isolated a group of people over time, you know, and monitored their abilities at crossword puzzles in relation to the general population, and they secretly gave them a day-old crossword, one that had already been answered by thousands of other people, and their scores went up dramatically. Like 20%. So it’s like once the answers are out there, people can pick up on them. Like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.

David Sosa: So, you might be saying, “Well wait a minute, what about quantum mechanics? I know enough contemporary physical theory to know it’s not really like that. It’s really a probabilistic theory; There’s room; It’s loose; It’s not deterministic, and that’s going to enable us to understand free will.” But, if you look at the details, it’s not really going to help because, what happens is, you have some very small quantum particles, and their behavior is, apparently, a bit random; They sort of swerve. Their behavior is absurd, in the sense that it’s unpredictable and we can’t understand it based on anything that came before. It just does something out of the blue according to a probabilistic framework. But, is that going to help with freedom? I mean, should our freedom just be a matter of probabilities, just some random swerving in a chaotic system? That starts to seem like it’s worse. I’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving.

Alex Jones: What a bunch of garbage; liberal, democrat, conservative, republican. It’s all there to control you! Two sides of the same coin. Two management teams bidding for control, the CEO job of Slavery, Incorporated! The truth is out there in front of you, but they lay out this buffet of lies. I’m sick of it, and I’m not going to take a bite out of it, do you got me?

Lisa Moore So, you pick up this picture of this two-dimensional image and you say, “That’s me.” Well, to connect this baby in this weird little image with yourself living and breathing in the present, you have to make up a story like, “This was me when I was a year old, and then later I had long hair, and then we moved to Riverdale, and now here I am.”  So, it takes a story that’s actually a fiction to make you and the baby in the picture identical….to create your identity.

Carole Dawson: And the funny thing is, our cells are completely regenerating every seven years. We’ve already become completely different people several times over, and yet, we always remain quintessentially ourselves. 

Chimp: Art was not the goal, but the occasion and the method for locating our specific rhythm and varied possibilities of our time. The discovery of a true communication was what it was about, or at least the quest for such a communication: the adventure of finding it and losing it. We, the unappeased, the unaccepting, continued looking, filling in the silences with our own wishes, fears, and fantasies, driven forward by the fact that no matter how empty the world seemed, no matter how degraded and used up the world appeared to us, we knew that anything was still possible, and, given the right circumstances, a new world was just as likely as an old one.

Louis Mackey: The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche, and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, rather this endless and futile addition of zeros? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3,000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential. The answer to that can be found in another question, and that’s this: which is the most universal human characteristic: fear or laziness?

Guy Forsythe: I had a friend once who told me that the worst mistake that you can make is to think that you are alive, when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room. The trick is to combine your waking, rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams, because if you can do that, you can do anything. Did you ever have a job that you hated, worked really hard at? Long, hard day at work, finally you get to go home, get in bed, close your eyes….and immediately you wake up and realize that the whole day at work had been a dream. It’s bad enough that you sell your waking life for minimum wage, but now they get your dreams for free.

Timothy “Speed” Levitch: We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, for even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel starring clowns.