Waking Life

Collected Works: Film


Waking Life

directed by Richard Linklater
Feature film

View a still from the film

A young man wakes and glances groggily at the digital clock on his bedside table. The figures before him flicker and dance, refusing to rest as he squints to decode them. Later, he walks down the street, stopping on a driveway to look to the sky. But then, his limbs are pulled from underneath him, lifted from the floor by a force that knows no physics. He grasps for a car door handle but misses. Slowly, he begins to drift upwards, his body weightless, until he becomes a speck in a sheet of blue.

Waking Life is an animated meditation on the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. Its structure is suitably free-flowing: it contains a meandering series of fragments, populated by a cast of colourful characters. Some individuals are fictional creations; others are real-life artists and academics, sketched out in cartoon form. The lack of a standard narrative framework gives the impression of aimlessness. One feels that we could start and end on any scene, viewing the whole as an infinite loop.

The film owes its distinctive visuals to the use of rotoscoping, an animating technique in which live-action footage is traced over. This enables reality to appear in a woozily warped form, as the boundaries between figures and their surroundings are blurred. In one vignette, which takes the form of an interview, the speaker gesticulates wildly, his body expanding and contracting to emphasise his point. Objects appear to illustrate lines of thought, then vanish once more with the click of a finger.

Our protagonist invites fellow dream-dwellers to ponder philosophical questions, listening attentively to their responses. Opinions are never pushed upon us or presented as definitive; their subjective, often contradictory nature is seen as a thing to be contemplated. Conspiracy theorists and bloodthirsty anarchists are cast in no less favourable a light than young romantics or budding creative types, and we are just as welcome. Waking Life’s hazy hallucinations may cause us to lose our footing, but they’re certainly worth the trip.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

Watch the trailer here. Read the full transcript here. Cynthia Fuchs has interviewed Richard Linklater for PopMatters. Jason Silverman has written about rotoscoping for Wired, as has Andres Lombana-Bermudez for vVvAlog.

Question of the day

Which films from 2001 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This leftfield tale of romance in Montmartre shines with the humour, colour, culture, and quirk of its titular protagonist. (→)

– Hugh Maloney, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch. Since I first saw it sixteen years ago, not a week has gone by where a new plot theory hasn’t popped into my head. Few things have held my attention for this long. (→)

– Doug Tuttle, musician (via The Brief →)

Read more: Animated films