January 26, 2023

Waking Life – A Review by Vago Damitio
waking lifeI remember an incident that happened when I was about five years old. My father was lying on his back in a grassy park and I had been trying to bury him in handfuls of grass that I ripped off of the lawn. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and looked at me in a way that I knew meant that something important was about to be said. I stopped piling grass upon him and waited for what I knew must be coming. My father loved to share secrets about the world with me. He and I shared a connection with an invisible world of thought that neither my mother, nor my siblings, seemed to be allowed entry to.

“Son,” he said speaking in a slow and careful tone of voice so that I would be sure to consider his words with the gravity they deserved. “Last night I dreamt I was an elephant. Now I don’t know whether I am a man who dreamed he was an elephant or an elephant who is dreaming that he is a man.”

At the time, I had no way of knowing that this dilemma had first been proposed by a Chinese sage to his king and that the original statement had been about a butterfly rather than an elephant. What I did know, was that suddenly the line that had seemed to be clear and solid dividing the worlds of being awake and the worlds of being asleep was no longer as clear and solid as it had been. In fact, the existence of the line had suddenly been presented as a dilemma and I was left to wonder which side of it I was currently on.

Richard Linklater’s remarkable film Waking Life works as the same sort of message to everyone I have ever talked about it with. In Waking Life, a young man wonders through a landscape that seems real only to resolve into the landscape of a dream just when it appears most solid. In the arenas of sight, sound, and thought this film works upon the senses to blur the lines between what the viewer knows and what the viewer thinks they know to finally reveal that the truth lies somewhere in between.

Waking Life appears to be an animated film in the same way that Disney features such as Aladdin or Snow White are animated; however, this is not the case. While traditional animated films are created through a process that begins with drawing and then continues with more drawing until thousands of frames have been made that simulate reality, Waking Life began with a videocamera.

The entire film was first made with real actors on a video camera. The sets are real, the actors are real, and the motion is often real. Only later was the video digitized and then converted through a process that creates the illusion of the traditional animation process. This is one of the first lines that becomes blurred in this manifestation of Linklater’s reality. One could almost imagine the words “…now I don’t know if I am a live action film dreaming I am animation or an animated film dreaming I am live action.” This destruction of division is further confused by the introduction mid story of characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from an earlier Linklater film called Before Sunrise.

Waking Life is peopled by a huge assortment of characters who all have something to say. The way that they say it is often in the tones of an everyday conversation in the real world even if the words they are saying are not the sort of thing one hears in the real world at all. Take for instance the girl the main character passes on his way down the steps and into the subway. As they pass, a meaningless pleasantry is exchanged. This is how things often go in the real world, however, in Waking Life, this is where the interaction begins rather than ends. The girl stops him and asks that they do the whole thing over. She explains to him that she spends her life passing people without noticing them and interacting with people without being affected by them and that she is tired of missing everything she might gain from giving herself the opportunity to experience what life puts in front of her. Even as he realizes that he is not having this experience in the waking world, he embraces it and learns from it.

This is the sort of interaction that happens continually from beginning to end in Waking Life. Each person speaks and imparts a profound meaning into an area of the real world that is continually taken for granted. The main character is as aware as we are that all of this is somehow coming from within his own head. The line between sound and self is no longer as clear as it once was. Again, it is not hard to think “…whether I am a man hearing others or whether I am hearing myself for the first time.”

The otherworldly feel of Waking Life is not limited to the senses of what we see or hear, nor to that which the main character sees or hears. All of this is simply added dimensions of window dressing that works as an incredible scene setter for the real subject of the film: reality. Reality can only be reckoned in the realm of thought, but the realm of thought is, of itself, as ethereal and elusive as the nature of thought.

The monologue and dialogue of Waking Life leads the character and the viewer to ask ‘What is reality?’ ‘What is time?’ ‘What is real?’. We are left with answers that don’t necessarily belong to any questions. We are left with questions that have multiple answers. We are left to wonder if anything we have ever known was really what it seemed to be. Did we, in fact, watch Waking Life?

Last week I imagined reality and in that reality I watched an animated film that was not animated and observed a reality that was perhaps only a dream. In that dream the nature of existence was questioned and no answers were ever made definite. I think that I am not an elephant dreaming he is a man, but perhaps, I am a man who is dreaming that he must compose this essay. I had better finish this, just in case, all of this happened in my waking life.

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