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.