Remember Generation X? Douglas Coupland once traced the origins of that short-lived bit of media hype to three items that appeared on the pop culture scene within months of each other in 1991: his own book by that name, Nirvana’s album Nevermind, and Slacker, a film by Richard Linklater.
In Slacker, Linklater drifted from one minor character in search of meaning to the next, over the course of a single day. He went on to make more conventional films, such as Dazed and Confused, but in Waking Life, he returns to the loose structure and flow of ideas that marked his first film.
Waking Life deals primarily with one guy, Wiley Wiggins, who spends his time watching films about the nature of reality, listening to people’s philosophical views and occasionally expressing his own ideas. Sometimes the film diverts its attention to other characters, who rant into a void or discuss their own existential themes. And just to keep things suitably surreal, the film was shot as live action and then converted into a cartoon.
The film begins with Wiley caught in a dream, and every time he seems to wake up, it turns out he is still dreaming. The film’s central theme is a question: Is life itself simply an illusion? While the dialogue is occasionally sophomoric, the film covers a broad range of challenging subjects, including the nature of memory, identity, free will and language — as well as the quest for “holy moments,” in which characters try to put time on hold and peer into some sort of eternal truth about each other. Linklater also tackles quantum physics, the writings of Philip K. Dick, and the fact that none of the molecules now in our bodies were there seven years ago.
It is sometimes said that the church is busy giving answers to questions that no one asks any more. It doesn’t have much of a story, but Waking Life does a nice job of compiling some of the essential questions of our age. For that reason alone, it is worth seeing. He who has ears, let him hear.