Waking Life, the movie

My antennas have picked up a certain positive vibe vis a vis the director Linklater in general and his movie Waking Life in particular. I know, for instance, that Gobbo is a great fan of the film and Daybreak also fancies it in a generous proportion. I am also aware that wide consensus approves of Waking life as not only a sprightly piece of cinematography, but – and this is considerably more significant – a genuinely great film. I myself have watched it at the goad of a good friend of mine, who assured me that I would not only find resonance within it but also promised that it would literally “change my life”.

I watched and, admittedly, it did not, but during the process my puny intellect did raise several questions as to what is it that exalts this movie from the ranks of ambitiously quixotic verbiage to that of philosophically relevant content.

Note that in order to supply a consistent view upon significant matters, the work of art (any work of art) must emanate as a conscious structure, a mirror view of the artist’s self. There is no art in the lack of any idea, where structure is absent, or in random dislocation (I am willing to defend this). Art is born in the presence of the artist’s over-arching influence. A sequence of beautiful frames will not make up a good movie and neither will a selection of apothegmatic lines picked up from a philosophy manual. What I’d like to analyse is whether there really is a philosophy to Linklater’s movie, beyond the fancy Sartre references and the attractively queer narrative.


There is the main character, whose destiny is dream. He keeps that somewhere in the back of his head, as a distant memory and this is about the only biographical information that we get about him. Sub rosa, we figure that he is probably the poetic, introspective human individual in a symbolic aspect.

He wanders like a lone cloud about town, asking himself whether things like the political ideal or human happiness are possible in the circle of existence. The conclusions are pessimistic. He passes by all sorts of awkward individuals, each of them sharing their wisdom to which our young man shows particular interest. Occasionally, we add to the puzzle distant pieces of solitary discourse, coming from characters who apparently have nothing to do with the plot. The main character, somewhat like an Ulysses, more like a Leopold Bloom, saunters among strange “fantastic” figures, all of which try to lure him with their song.

What we at some point derive from the sequence of events is that in reality there is no plot and every person met along the way is a projection of the main character’s psyche. The meaning of his visions is this: life is nothing more than the eternal phenomenal unfolding of a blind impulse to procreate, to reproduce, to gather in classes, to immure in categories. Such oblivious, inert, self-regulatory mechanisms can only bequeath evil. History is the uncoiling of this evil, the trend to institutionalise every aspect of existence and perpetuate the immorality of species. There are characters who arrantly express this belief – the guy in prison, the man shouting in the car, the girl with the ant allegory.

The only way to evade this evil is to sleep, to dream. A way to weaken the intensity of life and its evil is the ascetic experience, becoming a hermit. But by living through the prism of dreamlike experience one can dissolve the evil by impersonalizing it, exposing the pageantry of formal rules that shape our existence and rendering them null.

So far, sounds interesting. Very Schopenhauer. But how does this directly influence the manner in which one actually manifests ? If Linklater is sharing us his philosophy through this movie, what ethics does he propose ?

I wonder whether he suggests an aesthetical redemption, through artistic contemplation – art revealing the ideas that lie at the basis of any historical movement and liberating us from our taxonomic obsessions and trivial desires, the will to sit under the table of history.

Hm ? Does this make any sense ?

Three things that I would say:

  1. i think one of the main thrusts of the film is to blur the distinctions we may make between ‘waking life’ and ‘dream life’; note that the title of the film is a reference to George Santayana’s statement that “Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled”. And, just as different people have different dreams, so too - it suggests - reality is subjective and is not only experienced in one way.

  2. The film also accentuates the influence that our own minds can have on our reality; it emphasizes the freedom of the human will as the donor of meaning to life, and the importance of the present moment for action. I think Linklater sees art as the key to awareness of this.

  3. References are made to God being found in everyday life, whether through the ‘holy moments’ of film or within the collective unconscious. It is plausible that the movie was made with the concept of spirituality as an over-arching force in mind; and, with god and art arguably portrayed as two main forces, maybe the idea is to see a connection between the two.

In my opinion these are perhaps the main three ideas discussed, which act as a foundation for many of the others.

It makes perfect sense, sir. A wonderful analysis.

As for some of the questions you pose, I must be frank and admit I’ve never quite taken it seriously enough - holistically - to gather much in the way of Linklater’s ‘ethic’ or ‘message’, whathaveyou. Instead I’ve always viewed the film as a collection of individual pieces - some I agree with, some I do not; some I think should have been omitted, some I think are among the greatest pieces of art I’ve ever experienced.

It seems to me the method Linklater used in constructing the film was less a matter of him writing out a ‘script’ in the strict sense, rather - it’s a series of interviews, monologues and musings, isn’t it? You can almost pick out the scenes Linklater himself actually wrote: the Ethan Hawk scene and the two he’s actually in come to mind. The majority of the other segments are in fact fairly famous people with fairly famous ideas, presenting them in essentially (again) monologue form. I doubt very much Linklater had much, if anything, to do with their content.

In turn, if it turns out these monologues can combine in some way to present a complete morality or worldview, that’s beyond my capacity at present, and I suspect Linklater’s as well. Yet ultimately the film works for me because so many of the segments move me to remember certain truisms. For example:

awww… wtf.

I wrote up this whole nice post and now it’s not here?


Hey, soph

Sure, that’s entirely relevant. Also, the animation effect is, probably, significant. Real people are filmed and then a computer draws lines to supply the cartoon format. The image is not devoted to real-life experience, the quality of the animation and the colours shift from time to time. Sometimes the contours are firm and the colour sticks within the line. Other times they deconstruct and flow like in a Raoul Dufy painting. I sometimes have the same feeling in real-life, because I am short sighted and refuse to wear glasses out of vanity. I suppose making it an animation is an attempt to force it to seem more personal and innovative.

Surely, yes. Incidentally, I’ve seen a documentary today about Linklater and his work. He pointed out how many of his films are personal in an intimate way. His attitude towards the industry of “mainstream film-making” was rebutment. Even when was entrusted with a script from the studio he was working with, Linklater tried to weave ingeniously around the script, so that what followed would be an original product. I understand why – the biggest danger we face is to succumb to what is inert, petrified form, defunct. He dreads routine of course, and a defeatest attitude. Accepting a formalised existent is fatal, because it is against our nature. Every such person is, for Linklater, alienated, whereas those who have mastered the art of dreaming are serene.

That is why he insists we should dream – to shed the shackles that bind us to a trivial reality. If I decide now that I am going to be more active on ILP, write more posts and of greater quality, and shape my schedule after this rule, then I will have failed in understanding what is most important about the forum : spontaneity, the satisfaction of learning something new.

Even though we might never actually spread our arms and float off in front of our friends, Linklater tells us that dreaming about it is the closest experience we can get. It is the most fluent and outright acitivity that we can profess, because it engages our creativity and allows us to invent God, art, and the world we live in. One only neds to remeber how to do it, as Daybreak quoted.

thanks for your comments. i think dreaming definitely needs a revival - everyone has become misguided and lost inspiration - and great things don’t come without dreams, right? personally i daydream more than most people, and my sleeping dreams are often epic and as vivid as reality - sometimes i really think i’m living two lives, and i’m not sure which one is more real. mostly the other one is.

Just remembered.

The act of dreaming completely obturates the pereception of time-flow, or better yet the experience of time limitations. You just know that when the numbers on your digital watch become unreadable, impossible is nothing.

It never ceases to amaze me how people on this forum can over complicate things to the point of ruining the subject completly. All too stroke their own egos a bit. Yeah the plot is an odd one, most good movies have a weird plot, its to show you many perceptions and lives in a short amount of time. and if you actually LISTEN to the convo’s then you’ll see that they aren’t just pulled out of a “philosophy manual”. by the way i’d love one of these if someone can tell me where i can get such a manual. LET YOURSELVES ENJOY THINGS!

I’m not sure of the specifics, but they’ve actually done tests to determine what the nature of dream time is.

So for example there are those who are quite adept at Lucid Dreaming. Adept to the point of being in complete control of their body in the sleeping manner. So much so that they can blink their actual eyes on command, from the dream. So they were doing tests along the lines of ‘ok, blink when you feel 10 minutes have passed in the dream’.

It was on a CBC radio program I was listening to. They didn’t go into the conversions; that is, if they even calculated any.

Still… fascinating stuff.

I really wish my other post hadn’t bee deleted reminisces … it was so good. So much so I’m discouraged from writing another attempt…

Hey Zatchary,

Amazement is good, whether it stems from the vision of magnificence, or the spring of novelty, or the inaness of a fellow being, or the false pretense one may display. It shows you are open to the world and eager to assimilate it - memebership on a discussion board shows you are able to explore and express it. Sometimes expression preceds essence: the articulation of a fact awakens admiration for it.

I didn’t really like Waking Life when I first saw it. It seemed pretty decentered and inconsistent. After thinking about it for a while, I came to like it more in light of the details that coaglate the subject into a unity. After writing about it in this thread I realised it is a genuinely good film. I learned to like it by virtue of the complexity it exhibits.

I think that enjoyment is salient when following understanding. Of course, you may call the expounding of these elements of understanding ‘stroking of ego’ if you like.


Sorry for your post. It happened to me too. That’s probably how a miscarriage feels.

About the lucid dreamers: did they estimate the 10 minutes correctly ?


(But also not funny…)

No, but that’s the point. Time is different in a dream than in waking life, so they were trying to establish the exact nature of those differences. What I don’t know, or rather what they didn’t go into was if there was any sort of general conversion, or even if such a method could be applied.

So… could there be a ‘1 DT hour = 1 WT minute’ conversion, or it could be totally chaotic, or perhaps somewhat under control of the human. I’m not really sure at this point.

hey everybody, i just want to apoligize for my post earlier, i was irratable and i vented in the wrong manner. Their is certainly nothing wrong with analyzing this movie, i’ve done it in my daily life many times. You all make good, thought out points.

But one thing i found really interesting was on the issue of dream time OG was mentioning. how they said their is about 5 minutes of brain activity after death and that could be your entire after life. I can’t help but come back to this idea over and over when I’m pondering the after life. It’s seems both realistic and convincing. What do you al think of this?

I think it’s certainly a possibility…

By their logic though… the person would have a ‘real’ life before this supposed dream one.

Mindwalk is a film you must watch.



An interesting link about some of the philosophical ideas of the movie.