Appraisal — August 13, 2013, 3:22 pm

The Director as Dream Figure

Revisiting Richard Linklater’s Waking Life

Still from Fox Searchlight’s Waking Life. Artwork by Katy O'Connor

Still from Fox Searchlight’s Waking Life. Artwork by Katy O’Connor

When Waking Life, the sixth film by writer-director Richard Linklater, drifted into theaters in late 2001, I, for one, was not prepared. My memory of the first viewing recalls mainly my own impatience — an unusual movie falling victim to mood. Rather than being enveloped by its cloudy, rotoscopic dream world or engaged by the simultaneously floaty and weighty intellectual axis traversed by its nameless protagonist, I felt left out, stuck in the immediate world, with its new threat-level rainbow and clenched posture of dread.

Taking another look almost twelve years later, in the wake of writing about Linklater’s Before trilogy and marriage at the movies for the August issue of Harper’s, I had a much different response. Perhaps I’m a little sea-blind, or riding a swell of admiration for a director whose sensibility has only clarified and grown more consistent with time (spoiler alert: I love the Before films). But I sensed throughout Waking Life echoes of the trilogy’s themes: memory, dream life, the nature of reality; the way all three work within and without a person to form his or her (or their) story; and cinema’s essential sympathies and fidelities to that process. There was also a more explicit overture — a sign, six years after Before Sunrise but three years before Before Sunset, that Linklater wasn’t yet finished with his star-crossed couple.

Waking Life uses various forms of rotoscope animation to follow a young man (listed only as “main character”) through his dreams and daily life, the conceit being that he soon becomes unable to tell the difference. The first sequence features a boy and a girl playing with a paper fortune teller. The girl, played by Linklater’s daughter (also credited in Boyhood, which Linklater began shooting in 2002), peels open a fortune: “Dream is destiny.” Then we visit a rehearsing string orchestra, whose music will provide the score for the rest of the film. Then our hero steps off a train (an early echo of Before Sunrise; here, the train is called Dreamtrak) and into a boat-shaped taxi in which Linklater himself is seated. The main character doesn’t know where he’s headed. “Tell you what,” Linklater tells the driver, “go up three more streets, take a right, go two more blocks, drop this guy off at the corner.”

“This guy” is played by Wiley Wiggins, who also starred in Dazed and Confused (1993), a coming-of-age comedy drawn from Linklater’s high school years in 1970s Texas. Wiggins plays a freshman named Mitch, arguably Linklater’s alter ego. Director and avatar meet again, on more deconstructed terms, in Waking Life. Though Wiggins appears to wake up shortly after heeding Linklater’s (in)direction, a series of bizarre encounters, culminating with a man setting himself on fire, suggests otherwise. Then, twenty minutes in, we drift through the window of a big-city apartment building and find a couple in bed. Should it not be clear from their appearances that they are Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) — last seen vowing to reunite on a Vienna train platform in Before Sunrise, six years earlier — the heady tone of their exchange gives them away.

“I’ve been thinking about something you said,” Waking Life Jesse says, then quotes back to Céline her statement as a twenty-three-year-old in Before Sunrise that she often feels like she’s observing her own life as an old lady. “I still feel that way,” Waking Life Céline replies. “Like my waking life is [the old lady’s] memories.” The two then discuss the compression of time in dreams, Timothy Leary, brain chemistry, and reincarnation, ending on the idea that our instincts express billions of years of collective memory, and that it’s possible “we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.”

That Jesse and Céline are still talking their faces off in the main character’s dream extends this idea of telepathic congress. The notion is layered into Waking Life many times over, including in the part where a pair of Cineplex philosophers agree that movies are designed more for moments than for narrative. “Everything is layers, isn’t it?” one of them says. Later, a frustrated Wiggins asks of someone, “What’s it like to be a character in a dream?” A subsequent encounter provides the answer: “As one realizes that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream — that is self-awareness.”

Linklater appears again toward the end of Waking Life, this time at the helm of a pinball machine (again recalling Before Sunrise). He tells a story about Philip K. Dick meeting a woman who appeared to be a character from a novel he had written years before — every detail of her story matched, including her name. Then Linklater observes that our conception of time is a way of saying no to eternity — not yet, thank you — and that “all of our stories are the story of the journey from no to yes.”

A person can watch a lot of movies — the art of the eternal instant, as Linklater has it, which in capturing reality captures God — while saying no to eternity. I’m glad I saw this one again. Watching Linklater fade into pinball heaven, I thought: There goes the most self-aware director working in American film.

Share
Single Page
is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

More from Michelle Orange:

From the August 2013 issue

The Commitments

Love and marriage at the movies

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated temperature of Hell, according to two Spanish physicists ‘ interpretation of the Bible:

832°F

The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

A TSA agent in Seattle was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of women in the airport, a Maryland police officer was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of an off-duty colleague, and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that taking up-skirt photos is legal in the state.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today