Waking Life is a psychedelic documentary by the inimitable Richard Linklater. It follows a dreaming, nameless protagonist (Wiley Wiggins) through variously trippy encounters, including numerous conversations about the nature of dreams.
Made in 2001 (around a time when cinema often seemed to be dealing with the nature of reality), this is one of the most experimental and innovative documentaries out there – and I mean out there. The whole thing is entirely and explicitly a dream, weightlessly floating through a series of metaphysical discussions.
Linklater employs rotoscope animation, which he’d later use to even greater effect in A Scanner Darkly. Once again, this style is narratively essential; a way of presenting the world as it’s seen by the characters.
This is also one of the most accurate (or at least recognisable) depictions of dreams ever put to screen. The film is awash with visual and temporal fluidity, and we never know what’s real. Linklater combines real exchanges with scripted segments, blurring the lines between waking life and the world of dreams. The overall effect is entrancing and discombobulating in equal measure.
One moment we’re watching a man rant about media culture and alienation before setting himself on fire, the next we’re witnessing a chimpanzee giving a lecture on the social history of art and then promptly eating his notes. In one scene, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles from Before Sunrise and discuss collective memory. It’s like watching Before Sunrise on acid.
Not only does the film play with layers of dreaming 10 years before Inception, appealingly animates a wide array of intellectual ideas and provides practical advice on lucid dreaming (if you think you’re dreaming, look at a clock or try to turn on/off a light; apparently these things don’t work in dreams), it opens the mind more generally to the way we make sense of the world around us.
If that all sounds too hippyish or pretentious for you, then continue to ignore this movie. But if you’ve ever wanted to see a psychedelically animated sociology lecture or a philosophical soliloquy in a boat-car, then you might just enjoy drifting into Waking Life‘s stream of unconsciousness.