Wiley floats off in Waking Life

Waking Life

On the Brink of Falling Skyward

Is life a dream? With optimistic pessimism and pessimistic optimism, Linklater’s characters talk out the unbearable lightness of being.


"I was beautiful in the early days,
for this dissolution takes place as an apotheosis,
in which everything that holds us to life flies away,
but even in the flying away illumines us for the last time
with its human light." —Franz Kafka

Near the end of Richard Linklater’s animated feature Waking Life (2001) a dead woman describes what it was like being alive:

"It was a time to become conscious, to give form and coherence to the mystery, and I had been a part of that. It’s a gift. Life was raging all around me, and every moment was magical."

The unnamed main character in Waking Life, played by Willy Wiggins, finds himself trapped in a dream. As the movie progresses he becomes increasingly concerned that he too may be dead.

A purposeful drift

The film is similar in structure and theme to Linklater’s 1990 film Slacker. In both the viewer is allowed to drift quietly from one vignette to the next, and although neither have any plot to speak of, the audience is aware of a gradual progression. The sensation is similar to being carried along on an amusement park ride. Linklater sets forth the same idea over and over again using different characters in different situations to portray his thought from slightly different angles. His themes thus become increasingly apparent as screen time passes and each successive layer is revealed.

In Slacker Linklater’s characters either drift about aimlessly or apply themselves obsessively to a variety of absurd, slightly goofy, or even morbid projects. Those who drift seem vaguely aware they’re lost, that they’re in need of some kind of destination. Those who obsess appear to be more or less in denial, their projects just so many desperate attempts to create some kind of purpose or identity for themselves. Their desperation can be measured by the absurdity of their various obsessions.

Waking Life continues the same pattern. The speakers in the movie, like the kids in Slacker, grope for meaning. Linklater portrays a spectrum of spiritual suffering that stretches from those who have merely sold out their intelligence for spiritual comfort to those who seem driven to the brink of madness, to revolting hatred, or to desperate acts of self-destruction by their need for some authenticating struggle.

The overt philosophy in Waking Life is incidental to this dynamic. Whether a speaker’s words form a cogent, tightly reasoned argument, a raving tirade, or a platitudinous bromide, they invariably reveal the character’s dire need for what Ludwig Wittgenstein refers to as "thoughts that are at peace."

Foiled philosophy

Linklater sometimes uses philosophy as a foil for his basically existentialist message, as in the college professor’s speech near the beginning of the movie. This character tries his best to characterize existentialism as a positive, courageous way of approaching life, but his speech strikes us as compensatory—a more or less desperate attempt, as it were, to find in existentialism a satisfactory world view, a comforting pretext for living one’s life happily. In other words, his speech, in addition to being insipid, is religious in tone. An analogy presents itself here to Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, who teaches Leibniz’s philosophy of "the best of all possible worlds" in the same irretrievably optimistic fashion. The complexity of the film’s message and the brilliance with which it is conveyed sets this character’s glib sophistry in stark relief.

Waking Life
Another example: an old man in a bar quotes Nietzsche: "There are those who suffer from a lack of life and those who suffer from an overabundance." The man claims to belong to those who suffer overabundance, yet he characterizes the human race as quintessentially fearful and lazy, thereby fitting neatly into Nietzsche’s description of the former group that suffers from a want of life—"He who revenges himself on all things by forcing his image, the image of his torture on them, branding them with it." He’s just a barfly projecting his private vices onto the world.

As in this case, few of the speeches in Waking Life are meant to be taken at face value. They point back to the speakers themselves, to their common spiritual struggle. The games they play on themselves constitute a central theme of the movie. All the speakers struggle for meaning and purpose, for a destination or goal—or at least for a way of reconciling themselves to the absence of these things.

Dread dream questions

Linklater uses the idea of dreaming as a way of setting forth a wonderfully provocative question. Early in the film, Ethan Hawke’s character is asked, "What if the world we experience isn’t real, but merely a dream—perhaps someone else’s dream?" "I’m still just as real," he responds, "as anything else." But this answer strikes us as hollow. If it turns out that the real world isn’t real, surely something will have been lost.

If our waking life doesn’t really contain the ground upon which we are actually standing—if, for example, as one character suggests, we’re actually living in A.D. 50, perpetually reenacting the book of Acts—what, exactly, have we lost? Is it possible to qualify the inexplicable fear we feel on behalf of the main character as he begins to surmise his own death? Perhaps, just as the living mourn the dead, so also the dead mourn their loss of life. Linklater suggests the possibility that the dead might mourn life just as a trapped dreamer might come to mourn his waking life. If so, perhaps life’s value can be defined or measured by the grief of the dead and dreaming.

Whereas in Slacker various characters observe and listen to those they find "working out their salvation in fear and trembling," in Waking Life Willy Wiggins’s character is the sole object, directly or indirectly, of all the action in the film. Throughout much of the movie the dreamer merely observes, for the most part, the various spirits he encounters. But about two-thirds through the film a turning point occurs as Wiggins’s character confronts one of his dream speakers directly, a girl in a stairwell. "What’s it like," he asks, "to be a character in a dream?" It is at this point that the main character achieves lucidity. He’s dreaming and he knows it. He becomes disturbed by the fact that he can’t wake up and increasingly suspicious that he may actually be dead.

Although we are made to sympathize with the dreamer’s increasing dread of the possibility that he is becoming radically and irrevocably disconnected from reality, we are also provided with repeated indications that this is, after all, the natural course of things—that the answer to the dreamer’s problem lies ultimately in surrender rather than in resistance to the drift toward dissolution. After his encounter with the girl in the stairwell, this theme becomes more explicit.


Linklater uses the metaphor of floating to convey the main character’s participation in this struggle. In the film’s opening scene, we see a child standing outside a house by a 1970s-vintage car and looking up at the sky. As he begins to float he catches the door handle of the car so that he doesn’t float away.

This image of falling upward into the sky represents the main character’s attempt to remain earthbound, to stave off the complete dissolution of his personality into nothingness. The sky becomes an abyss suspended above him, as it were, up into which he is forever threatening to plunge. In this way, Linklater depicts visually Milan Kundera’s "unbearable lightness of being"—that is, modern humanity’s fierce want of gravity, our intensely felt need for a drama with real consequences to which we can bind ourselves. If we can find a story that is meaningful, we can hope to secure meaning for ourselves by participating in it. If no such authenticating narrative presents itself, we try to invent one, however pitiable or bizarre, to suit our need.

A repeated irony in Waking Life lies in the idea, expressed by various characters, that when you’re dreaming anything is possible. You’re completely free to do whatever you want. But this is precisely the problem. As we become increasingly aware of the arbitrariness of our actions, we begin to suspect that we are far too free. We are cursed with freedom, and the more our choices multiply, the less significant our decisions become. Confronted with the prospect of perfect freedom, we find ourselves on the verge of dissolution, of blowing completely away. Faced with this possibility, we struggle, again and again, to remain earthbound. But no matter how "intricate and subtle" become the patterns we create for ourselves, we nevertheless remain on the brink of falling skyward.

The last speaker in the movie is portrayed by Linklater himself. The dreamer finds him playing pinball in the basement of a nightclub. He attempts to explain the nature of the universe.

"Actually there’s only one instance and it’s right now, and it’s eternity, and it’s an instance in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you wanta,’ you know, ‘be one with eternity, do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘Nnnn-no, thank you, not just yet.’ And so, time is just a constant saying no to God’s invitation."

This scene takes place just before the dreamer—presumably the child grown up—finds himself once again at the old car outside his childhood home. But this time he misses the door handle and floats away. The movie ends, its first spoken words fulfilled: "Dream is destiny."

Reasoning backwards

The youth in Slacker are lost. Left to their own resources they’re trying their level best to create for themselves something that will pass for an ultimate concern, and their failure is brilliant. Through his portrayal of their various pathetic ploys to find meaning Linklater was able to create a tender picture of his characters’ seemingly hopeless predicament.

The main character in Waking Life finds himself in the same intolerable position. A parade of speakers gropes like blind men for the door. Many of their discourses are unaccountably optimistic, as though the speakers had begun with their hope and were attempting to reason backwards. Most of the speakers, including the self-immolator, offer some sort of solution, however desperate or monstrous. It’s as though their longing is somehow misplaced—the beauty and meaning and hope of life is in here somewhere, but it is forever eluding them.

In November of 2001, while Waking Life was still in theaters, a man in a suburban shopping mall in Cherry Valley, Illinois set himself on fire, shouting "freedom and liberty for all." It’s fascinating that the scene in Waking Life that seems least plausible should have actually come to pass and that the details of the event should so vividly mirror those depicted in the movie.

Linklater has diagnosed with great precision a spiritual sickness characteristic of, if not unique to, his generation. Whether or not with his incandescent, quasi-theosophic version of existentialism he’s managed to locate a path to peace, he’s portrayed admirably Chesterton’s observation that whether or not man can be washed in miraculous waters, there is no doubt that he wants washing.

posted by editor ::: February 09, 2002 ::: philms :::