Waking Life: A visual and mental kaleidoscope of surrealism

Waking Life

Waking Life (2001)
Genre: Animation | Drama
Country: US
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Richard Linklater (Slackers, Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly) teams up with Producer Tommy Pallotta and Art Director Bob Sabiston to ambitiously create a feature length film implementing the 21st century’s version of rotoscoping (overlaying live action footage with animation). Waking Life is an exercise in both visual and mental stimulation, daring viewers to accept the surreal realities of dreams and what they may teach us about traversing our waking lives.

Set in Austin, Texas, Waking Life follows a dreamer (Wiley Wiggins, Dazed and Confused) as he encounters a myriad of professors, artist, writers, and performers as they pontificate through a series of vignettes on different trends in philosophy. Think of it as speed dating in a campus coffee house. You’re allotted a limited amount of time at each table while potential suitors try to intellectually woo you between sips of their triple-shot-soy-whatever.

Viewers who are dead set on their films having an outline type structure and a definitive, spoon-fed plot, need not apply. If you’ve ever tried to describe a dream to someone, you know it’s always disjointed and often nonsensical. [I was in my house, but it wasn’t my house, but in the dream I knew it was my house. And there was this guy going around changing all the light bulbs and he had on this jacket made of Waterford crystal. And there was a dog. I think it was a dog. It might have been a Dingo. That’s a thing, right? One of those dog-things that ate Meryl Streep’s baby? Anyway, the dog-dingo-thing gave me these plane tickets to Des Moines. The next thing I know I’m on this plane, but it’s the wrong damn plane! The stewardess is yelling at me; she looks a lot like that waitress at Irma’s, you know the one with the tattoos and the piercings? Anyway, she’s yelling at me to get off the plane, and I’m like, dude, we’re 30,000 feet in the air, where do you suggest I go? And then I woke up. What do you think it means?] Keep that in mind when approaching this film.

This is a film that requires a ten-gallon thinking cap, but one that never preaches or talks down to its audience. Although we are presented with several theories on a variety of “intellectual” subjects such as free-will, reincarnation, telescoping evolution, and existentialism, Linklater never asks that we hitch our mental wagons to any of these concepts. In fact, we are presented with the rules of the road for our journey in the first five minutes of the film. When The Dreamer is picked up at the train station by a man in a boat/car (trust me, it makes a lot more sense when you’re watching the film) the driver proclaims that “This is like my little window to the world, and every minute’s a different show. Now I may not understand it. I may not even necessarily agree with it. But I tell you what; I accept it and just sort of glide along.”

For those willing to take the ride, Waking Life is an acid trip of beauty and discovery. With its ground breaking animation (this film was made five years before A Scanner Darkly) and thought provoking philosophies, Linklater and his team present us with the perfect slice of surreal pie. And yes, I’ll have a second helping, thank you.


“I’m tired of cleaning up your little burrito doings.” [Bill Wise: Boat Car Guy & Convenient Store Clerk]

“I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go Salsa dancing with my confusion.” [Timothy “Speed” Levitch: Man on the Bridge]

“Super perfundo on the early eve of your day.” [John Christensen: Guy Talking About Turning the Light on in Dreams]


5 responses to “Waking Life: A visual and mental kaleidoscope of surrealism

    • The first time I watched this, about 20 minutes in I started thinking, “I’m either waaaaay too sober for this, or I need to pay much closer attention.” Since I am no longer in a position to do anything about point A, I settled for point B and started over from the beginning. Totally worth it in the end, and I imagine viewed either way is an enjoyable experience.

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