To discuss Waking Life you have to speak of slackers and stoners, but will anyone other than potheads and fans of Caveh Zahedi (I Was Possessed By God) care for it? Even if you don’t appreciate Linklater’s philosophy, his visual innovation is arresting: Shot on video, the film’s images were animated using computer software and a machine called the Wacom Tablet. The effect is hallucinatory, with the filmic space turned into a plane-shifting realm of free-floating ontology. Whether it’s a product of stoic contemplation or reefer madness, Linklater’s waking life becomes an elusive, one-way vehicle to God. If destiny lies in dreams—as the little girl says in the beginning of the film—then what is to be made of the lucid dreamer, the one that consciously controls the logic of the dream? And if there is a God, is there such a thing as free will? The film is a flurry of questions and answers, though its up to the audience to determine which ones are the most meaningful.
The main character, played by Wiley Wiggins, remains anonymous throughout, a representation of us all. He awakens from a dream, aboard a train to spiritual nirvana; a little girl’s determinist toy informs a younger version of the journeyman that “dream is destiny”; and when the boy floats off the ground, he holds onto a parked car’s door handle in order to return to the ground. Older, although certainly not wiser, Linklater’s protagonist bemoans in silence his state of confused being (is he awake, dreaming, or dead?), oblivious to the essence of his journey which is to float off the ground, with God and without fear. As Linklater maps the young man’s run-ins with dozens of slackers (their minds, though, are anything but slack) and, later, Linklater himself (essentially a more self-aware version of the film’s hero), a web of spiritual elation is cast over the character.
The film affects a nondenominational fugue state, where everyone is part of God but free of the pressures of groupthink. This philosophy isn’t very complex, but believing in it is a challenge. Linklater’s doppelganger undergoes his “neo-human evolutionary cycle” as friends and strangers deconstruct everything from postmodernism to reincarnation (seen by Julie Delpy’s character as “a poetic expression of collective memory”). While everyone in the film seems to ascribe to the same philosophy, their free will is painstakingly made eminent through individual color schemes. (Animators on the film were paired with specific characters, thus the film’s vastly heterogeneous landscape.) One character—a man in prison for undisclosed crimes—is, literally, red with anger. He dreams of revenge against those responsible for his sentence, seeking to tear their eyelids from their faces, forcing them to stare into the face of a different kind of God, although not exactly the Devil.
Zahedi celebrates film theorist André Bazin’s Holy Moment, which asks that we welcome curiosity and strip ourselves of the layers that prevent us from achieving higher consciousness. Zahedi and a friend literally morph into puffs of cloud after staring into each other’s eyes and embracing their Holy Moment—a euphoric scene, visually splendorous and alive with spiritual rapture. Linklater, a pinball machine, The Book of Acts, and Philip K. Dick lend credence to the director’s near-tangible fantasia. Even if life is not a “no thank you” to an invitation from God, Waking Life is, at the very least, a humanist embrace of self-affirmation. As in dreams, life is full of endless possibilities and while the film may amount to one monstrous rant from a hardcore stoner, Linklater is willing to admit that active thought is nothing without active action. The film’s journeyman manages to take a plunge and come closer to God, although a larger question remains: what will we do?