Watch & Listen

Should I Watch This Movie?

By Nalu Concepcion

“Combine your waking rational abilities with the infinite possibilities of your dreams, because if you can do that, you can do anything.” – Waking Life.

Waking Life is a film separate from all others. Its rich insights on life, death, and human relationships evoke undulating emotion, provoke the mind, and excite the soul. The film follows one main character’s reflections on how his waking reality is shaped by his iridescent dreamscape. The film emphasizes the value of being engrossed in “the present,” enrapturing the viewer by offering constant reminders that one can either choose to be a silent third-party observer of life or an active, engaged participant. 

Waking Life grabs the viewer’s attention by elegantly weaving together plotlessness, dynamic animation, and jazzy, somewhat dated music. Viewers are perpetually reminded that the reality through which we move is nothing more than a product of perception. The dream-vision style of filmography distinguishes the film as artful, intentional, and refreshingly novel; the backdrop (and the characters depicted) are set in perpetual motion by the rotoscope animation as if to suggest that space is merely an illusion, time a convenient medium through which to tell narratives. 

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Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Undeniably, the most formative elements of the film are the monologues and dialogues. Each of these carefully constructed thought-releases are all-consuming, every word building on to the previous one to create a speech that begs viewers to stop subscribing to the status quo. A zen ukulele framer summarizes what I considered to be the most valuable insight of the movie; “The worst thing you can believe is that you are actually alive, but in reality you are just sitting in life’s waiting room.” 

The movie seems to spur viewers to craft a more meaningful reality for themselves, demanding that they refuse to be mentally idle, encouraging them to think, to ask themselves whether they are awake, and to break stride rather than execute mundane tasks thoughtlessly. Each monologue imparts some new tidbit of ideological inspiration and lends the viewer a new perspective through which to view the world. Through these monologues, the finitude of time and space is abolished, replaced instead by the great magnificence of the eternal and the infinite. 

_Cyanotype_- Jacqueline Wong
Art by Jacqueline Wong

The main character obtains the most climactic lesson while in a dialogue with a playwright about a soap opera performance—a metaphor for life as a stage upon which all are performers. The main character asks the playwright where he is. He confesses his awareness of the fact that he is dreaming, that he slips in and out of lucidity, shortly thereafter arriving at the potent realization that it doesn’t particularly matter what irrelevant information he has. He acknowledges rather that his experiences—that the interactions and conversations he has had with the other characters in his dreams—matter more than his individual identity. In this manner, the film directly juxtaposes the value structure defined within the “waking” reality and the “dreaming” one. It evocatively evaluates how the value structures of individuals within each respective reality shift once they acknowledge which reality they are experiencing. Here, the viewer understands that freeing oneself from the concept of time also frees oneself from the performance of life, allowing an individual to experience individual moments as “holy,” rather than simply as frames which compose a larger narrative. 

Ultimately, Waking Life is a mind-bending tale worthy of a thorough close watching. The film is a visual delicacy, at once mentally invigorating, soulfully deep, and artfully peaceful. Its message is incisive, reminding viewers that we are pieces of the waking-landscape narrative, that we are still bound by finite space and limited time—but we get to choose how to perceive it, how to partake in it, and ultimately, how to escape from it. 

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