Some of my earliest memories are of lucid dreams. I could even control them to a limited degree. Dreams were an adventure. I still had nightmares from time to time, but lucid dreaming instilled in me the sense that the universe was full of fantastical possibilities, even if I couldn’t access all of them in my waking life. But I lost the ability to lucid dream ability rather quickly. I think I was as young as five or six. It was heartbreaking, like I had lost a superpower. In retrospect, perhaps my declaration that I would grow up to become a writer just a few years later was in the hopes of spiritually regaining those dreaming abilities. I’m now 30, and sometimes still mourn that loss.
A decade later, in the “Intro to Philosophy” class I had taken as an elective in my sophomore year of high school, I saw an experimental film called Waking Life, directed by Richard Linklater. Up until that point I only knew him for one of my favorite comedies, School of Rock, but Waking Life was something else entirely.
It’s not a straight documentary, as actors and scripted conversations anchor what loose narrative there is, but there isn’t much plot to speak of either. The leisurely-paced central conflict, if you can even call it that, is presented with rather low stakes as the central character (Wiley Wiggins, perhaps best known as a bullied teen in Linklater’s breezy 1993 comedy classic Dazed and Confused) experiences a series of lucid dreams, unsure of what’s real or when he’ll wake up. Along the way he takes part in, or imagines, a series of heady conversations with an assortment of philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers about existentialism, language, evolution, and other similarly thought-provoking topics, all centered around the central theme of dreams, and how we choose to exercise our consciousness.
I don’t think I’d gotten even halfway through the film before I decided it was my new favorite; enchanted by the rotoscope animation, woozy score, and of course, the heady conversations. I hadn’t experimented with psychedelics, and still haven’t had that experience, but I felt like I finally understood what all those 60s and 70s rockers I loved meant when they’d talked about expanding one’s consciousness. I thought it had permanently changed the way I thought about my life and the universe.
In retrospect I was probably right, although I do have to laugh now when I think back to how much of an evangelist for this film I was at the time — insisting on watching it with friends, as well as girls I was interested in romantically. Needless to say it was not the aphrodisiac I hoped it would be, but my belief that the world would be a better place if more people saw Waking Life was and remains utterly sincere.
(I should acknowledge the one element of the film that has aged like milk: a scene in which conspiracy theory-peddling radio show host Alex Jones drives around with a megaphone shouting a vaguely anti-establishment rant around a suburban neighborhood. In Linklater’s defense, Jones – just 27 years old at the time the film was released– was not widely known to be as aggressively harmful as he proved himself to be in recent years. Within the context of the film, and removed from the knowledge we have now about how he – to name one example – incited harassment against the Sandy Hook shooting victims’ families, it’s a fairly harmless scene that’s too unspecific to be particularly incendiary.)
The feeling that you’re the first to discover a piece of art you love is uniquely teenage, and indeed by the time I saw it in 2006, Waking Life was hardly a new movie. It was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd, 2001, followed by a limited release in select theaters on October 19th that same year. At the time, critics like Roger Ebert noted the significance of releasing such a film in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks. It was a time of existential terror in the United States (and around the world, especially the parts where the American government had chosen to use post-9/11 anxiety as an excuse to commit a series of heinous war crimes), and here was a movie that suggested a joyous approach to existentialism might be the best response to human despair.
On paper, Waking Life might sound like it would be an exceedingly boring film, or a painfully pretentious one, but it’s incredibly watchable. The fact that such intellectual material is presented as conversations rather than lectures is key. It fosters a far more inviting tone, and makes the audience feel as if we’re just as worthy of participating in these complex conversations as anyone else in the film. These include not just professional smart people, but relatively ordinary schlubs like a bartender, a prison inmate, and at least one character who might be described as a “drifter.” Even if we have a hard time keeping up, we never feel condescended to.
I think the reason why I keep coming back to Waking Life year after year — no matter how jaded I get with age or how much the wretched state of humanity seems hellbent on pushing me towards cynical nihilism — is because of it’s proud, relentless optimism. Linklater’s brand of hopefulness isn’t cloying or symptomatic of toxic positivity, but feels truly heartfelt and backed by a certain philosophical depth. Waking Life isn’t content to tell us that we should be optimistic simply for shallow reasons like a social stature, fun, or even our own happiness. It’s about showing us how optimism is the intelligent way to live, and perhaps even the morally correct one.
After all, Waking Life certainly doesn’t ignore the utterly real existential threats to humanity and the world. It acknowledges and validates all the large-scale reasons we have to be terrified for the future. Linklater doesn’t ask us to ignore war, famine, environmental collapse, or the overarching threat of human ignorance. This is not a film that tells you to fake a smile. It’s a film that challenges you to dream.
“Hey, are you a dreamer?” a train-hopping man asks our protagonist.
“Yeah,” Wiley Wiggins says, with a tinge of uncertainty.
“Haven’t seen too many of you around lately,” the man replies. ”Things have been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming is dead, no one does it anymore. It’s not dead, it’s just that it’s been forgotten, removed from our language. Nobody teaches it so nobody knows it exists. And the dreamer is banished to obscurity. Well, I’m trying to change all that, and I hope you are too. By dreaming, every day. Dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced, ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting.”
Perhaps more than any other moment in Waking Life, the above speech struck a chord with me as a teenager in 2006. As someone who’d been proudly proclaiming since the age of eight that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, combined with my ADHD, my dreamer tendencies often alienated me from peers, as well as more than a few adults in my life. I didn’t grow up with enough money to keep up with my upper-middle-class suburban school’s materialistic tendencies. It was one of many things I was bullied for. The ethos of my peers seemed to indicate that ignorance was a virtue, and I was mocked for both being too spacey and asking teachers too many questions.
It’s also not a coincidence that Waking Life was released in the George W. Bush presidency — an era that we were still very much in the midst of by the time I discovered it. It wasn’t just the behavior I observed in the halls of my school that made me think intellectual curiosity was deemed fit for punishment, but what I saw in the news. As a 15-year-old just starting to become politically aware, I watched as wide swaths of my country embraced blind patriotism and xenophobia in the wake of 9/11. The world appeared to be moving in a direction in which those who dream of a better, more just world were shunned in favor of the unquestioning embrace of so-called “traditional values.”
In the world of Waking Life, dreaming isn’t just something that you do when you’re sleeping, and “dreamer” is not merely a condescending way to describe someone with unconventional modes of thinking. Dreamers are badasses, and dreaming is an act of socio-political rebellion. It’s about making a conscious decision to spend every possible moment of your waking life committed to standing in awe of the profound wonder of the universe we live in and the mysteries of life itself. It’s about consciously asking how we can make our world kinder, more conscious, and more curious.
I may not have lucid dreams anymore, but I like to think I’m still a dreamer. I hope you are too.