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.