Dreaming Life in the Waking Life (2001)
Waking Life (2001) is an animated film written and directed by Richard Linklater that film narrates the story of a nameless young man (Wiley Wiggins) who, following a mysterious encounter with a boatman at the airport and figuring in a road accident, wakes up later only to find himself trapped in a dream-like state. It is in this state that the main protagonist encounters characters and events that attempt to explore the meaning of human existence/non-existence from various viewpoints. Among the most interesting arguments explicitly and implicitly made by the film is concerned with the loss of “real” human existence in today’s world and the irony of lack of identity in a supposely highly individualized society. This review will therefore focus on critically analyzing this argument and how the film becomes an effective medium as a text in itself in persuading the audience to accept the realities and claims put forward by Linklater.
Linklater’s main thesis is that the dehumanization or the “nothingness” of human beings result not only from the oppression and exploitation of humans by the prevailing social, economic, and political order but more importantly, from the individual’s refusal to challenge the status quo and break away from oppressive structures in order to attain his or her freedom and reclaim his humanity. Linklater supports this argument mainly with logical appeal. In fact, majority of the scenes in the film feature characters engaged either in philosophical conversations or monologues on the dilemma of human existence, control, and fulfillment. These statements, successfully interwoven with the movie plot, explicitly support the dehumanization theme and are succinct enough to lend credibility to the film’s argument.
Likewise, the effort to provide a fair view on the subject is imminent in the wide-ranging perspectives presented. The film provided enough space for the presentation of the opinions of professors, writers, directors, artists, philosophers, and other people such as the boatman and the prisoner. The variety in perspective, personality, and mood of the characters makes it possible for the audience to explore the issues raised by the film on a deeper level.
On the other hand, it is in the use of film elements to implicitly support the argument that Waking Life stands out. For instance, the “dehumanization” theme is verbally—and loudly—argued by the characters in the film, except, ironically, by the main protagonist who is often a silent bystander or subject in many of the film’s scenes. However, the main protagonists’ silence and his perennial stupor effectively illustrate the irony of every human being’s “waking life” wherein the majority of the conscious moments of every day of his life are spent in dull, boring, and rotund activities meant for subsistence and survival. In this twisted reality, dreams are more vivid and more vibrant that most of world’s realities.
In keeping with this, the film follows the rotoscope style, in which the actors are deliberately animated. The result is a strong statement against conformity in filmmaking, especially in an age where corporate-driven and Hollywood-style movies and production outfits dominate the film industry. The animated characters also speak volumes about the sketches of individuals in society and provoke the audience to question the way they look at others or even at themselves.
The main protagonist’s silence is also used to depict the ignorance and apathy of many people which according to the film contributes to the increasing dehumanization and subjugation of the majority. The contrast between the main protagonist’s passive existence and the other characters is thus effective as an emotional appeal to the audience as they are able to emphatize with the dilemma of being trapped in a dream felt by the “waking.” His experiences also point to the general feeling of being without direction and finding no meaning in life that evokes feelings of loneliness and emptiness.
Thus, Waking Life becomes an effective medium to support Linklater’s main argument. Undoubtedly, the points raised by the film are rendered credible by the intense and relevant discussions about human/inhuman existence and strengthened by the use of signifiers and implicit meanings in the film elements and style. The main protagonist and his experiences (or his lack of experiences) become the argument’s main evidence: he and his experiences represent what has come to be stereotyped as the “waking life” or the “ordinary” and the “pathetic.”
Ultimately, Linklater’s argument is made effective by his ability to weave various points of view together using the film’s narrative to support a more general idea in both explicit and implicit ways. Likewise, this is strengthened by his ability to use both reasoning and emotional appeals and the use of irony in the film. Moreover, the fact that the film is presented as an independent and intelligent exploration of the meaning of human life and existence makes it thought-provoking and convincing.