By Al Moniz firstname.lastname@example.org © 2014
Waking Life is a well-known movie that seems to be about, or at least prominently feature, dreaming. I have even heard it described as a movie about lucid dreaming. I myself would say that it is a movie that takes place entirely in a dream state (or rather – dream stateS) in which lucid dreaming plays a pivotal role in the plot.
Yes, plot. Remember that word. It plays a pivotal role in this essay
I recently viewed Waking Life for the first time when it fortuitously was made available at no cost by my local cable company. Also fortuitously, my latest issue of Dreamtime arrived right before I was about to view the movie and, lo and behold, inside was a review of, you guessed it, Waking Life. Interesting coincidence, I thought.
So I set the magazine aside to save the review until after the ‘view‘, as it were. When I finally got to it I was surprised to read that, according to the reviewer, Waking Life ‘doesn‘t exactly have a plot’ and consisted of talking heads commenting apparently at random….’
I was doubly surprised because I read this immediately after I had just finished telling my wife what I thought was the very detailed plot of the movie. Shall I tell you the plot of the story I saw?
It begins with the protagonist as a little boy, playing a child‘s game with a friend (they are using a ‘kootie catcher‘) which ends when the phrase ‘Dream is Destiny’ is produced under one of the flaps of the ‘catcher.‘ Thus the premise of the movie is stated at the very start. Dream is fate. Or this dream is your fate, protagonist. And fate, classically speaking, is very often associated with death.
The boy looks up. He sees a shooting star in the sky. Is it an omen? Is it a spirit in passing? If so,whose?
We see almost immediately afterward that this little boy is dreaming. How? He begins to float up in the air…but he manages to grab a car handle and to ‘hold on‘, as it were, before he completely drifts away. At that moment he has made a choice, we will later come to realize. As explained in the seminal scene towards the end of the movie, every person is constantly being asked a question by God: Are you ready to say ‘yes‘ and merge with the eternal? And until we are, our answer is ‘No, not yet….’ By grabbing onto the car handle and not floating into the ‘all‘ (as he does at the end of the movie), the character is saying ‘No, not yet…’ and thus we get a movie that presents the story of what it is he goes through before he is ready to say ‘Yes’!
Having made his choice and grabbing on for a little more time, the lead seems to wake up on a train, now a young man. (Actually this follows a musical interlude. These interludes seem to accompany the flying and transition-between-dream scenes.) But after he disembarks the train we see he is still dreaming, even though he himself isn‘t aware of it. How do we know that? Because everything in the background is moving. Constantly moving.
There is something else that he is not aware of. But neither are we… yet. But we will get to that.
He walks into a train station – a ‘terminal.‘ I will let that word speak for itself. I will say this though: a terminal can be thought of as a clearing house, a way station, for souls in transit, so to speak. He goes through some business in the train station that seems to indicate he is disoriented and a bit ‘lost.‘ He has no one to meet him or pick him up. He goes outside looking for a cab.
What he gets instead is an offer of a ride from an eccentric character in an open boat-car. Or a car-boat.
‘Why not?’ thinks the hero. And he climbs on board, in the back seat, where another character is already seated. Thus begin a series of scenes where dream characters espouse interesting and metaphysical treatises on the nature of reality, life, and existence. The boat driver is no exception. He is quite engaging and insightful. He says things about letting yourself ‘go with the flow.‘ Of traveling ‘in motion to the ocean.‘ Aren‘t these just other ways of saying, ‘Say ‘yes‘ and join the eternal’?
At some point, though, he wants a destination to drop our boy off and our hero can‘t seem to give it. He‘s not clear where he is going, or perhaps where he came from. Or, by inference, how he even got there. It‘s the second passenger who suggests a very specific address for our hero.
The boat man delivers our guy to the spot. But before he does, he tells our hero that this choice will decide ‘the course of the rest of your life.’ And indeed it does. The hero gets out and he sees a piece of paper in the street (reminds one of the kootie catcher). Goes to pick it up. It says, ‘Look to your right.’ He does and POW he is hit and killed by a car.
THIS is his destiny then. It is also our first major clue as to what is going on. What the real plot is. Has our hero been killed before the story has even begun? Has he been dead since the start of the movie? Is this all a flashback? If so, then, if the character we have been following is dead, who is the first being one meets, mythologically speaking, when passing over into the land of the dead?
Why, Charon, of course … the boat man. The ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the river Styx that divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. Could that be one and the same with our eccentric driver, in the captain‘s cap, of the boat-car?
And if that is true, could our hero be presently residing in the world that divides the living from the dead?
After being hit, our hero wakes up, in his bed, at home. But of course he doesn‘t really wake up. He never wakes up during the whole movie. It‘s as if waking up is no longer an option to him. Not in the standard sense. Not waking up to the physical realm, to the land of the living. This is something that slowly dawns on him and to us, over the course of the movie. As the hero‘s character develops. As the plot line progresses.
From here on the movie basically breaks down into what I will call three Acts. In Act One, our hero is passive, merely a witness to his life. His dream life, that is. He takes in long monologues, as I‘ve mentioned before, on the nature of society, reality and consciousness. Many of these talks emphasize NOT being passive, of taking authorship of our lives. But in general they are not specific to our hero‘s plight. There are exceptions though.
There is a scene early on, in this passive-witnessing segment, where our hero tunes in on a couple in bed. The woman postulates whether she might be an old woman who is looking back on her life. And what she calls her ‘waking life‘ is just her reliving her memories. An illusion as it were. How could the director make it plainer? He has one of his characters define ‘waking life‘ for us in a movie named Waking Life! And the definition? A state of consciousness at the end of life where we mistake the illusion of being alive for really being alive. Like our hero, perhaps?
To further cement this concept, Ethan Hawke (the guy half of the couple in the bed) then talks about how Tim Leary was looking forward to those 6 to 10 minutes after death when the brain is still active. He conjectures whether this ‘pre-death‘ time might be like time is ‘in a dream.‘ Where a few minutes might seem to be much longer than they actually are. Like the length of a feature movie longer, perhaps?
One last characteristic of this opening Act is that our hero is not cognizant of when he is dreaming (always) and when he is not (never). He is not aware of his fate (destiny?) at this point.
This all changes in Act II when he ‘wakes up‘ from yet another dream and the seeds of awareness finally sprout in him. He feels compelled to call a friend to discuss this strange series of dreams he‘s been having. (The friend of course is not home. He never is.) Our hero is starting to notice what is going on and it is starting to perplex him. Maybe even worry him.
Very soon after this he turns on the TV where a woman is talking about shamanism and lucid dreaming. This is again followed shortly by, after yet another false awakening, our hero running into a friend who is very knowledgeable about lucid dreaming. I find it hard to believe that these scenes are random. Their placement is just too pat. I believe the director put them there on purpose to show his lead character starting to grow and become conscious of his plight. His destiny.
Finally our hero starts to unburden himself of what has been going on up to this point. About how he keeps having these dreams and then waking up but not waking up. (‘False awakenings‘ his friend informs him.) The friend tells him a couple of techniques for doing reality checks in dreams, being aware of when you are dreaming and when you are not. And also of the possibility of controlling your dreams. Of having an effect on them. In other words…of being active not passive. To actually do what all the preaching voices of the first act had been urging him to do.
So in Act II our hero is going from being passive to active (he is talking now, not just listening. Moreover, he is talking about what is going on for HIM). He is learning tools to use and affect his situation (checking his watch, throwing a light switch, standard reality checks). And maybe most importantly, he is becoming aware of his predicament (when asked a little while later by another character if he is a ‘dreamer‘ the hero says, ‘Yes, I am,’ without hesitation). He is self aware now. In general the encounters with the ravers and philosophers in this section are shorter and more pointedly apropos to our hero.
For example, there is a philosopher/ukulele player who says, ‘The worst mistake you can make is to think you are alive when you are really in life‘s waiting room.’ Please, director, can you make it clearer for me?
The next pivotal scene is a scene in a subway station. This leads to Act III – We now find our character talking freely. He clearly suspects his plight – he can‘t wake up. Even confronts other characters with the nature of their shared reality, telling them they are just figments of his dream. (Or is it vice versa,? One dream character asks back.)
He is fully coming to grips with the gravity of his paradox. This is not just an ordinary, run of the mill dream or series of dreams. This is ‘THE DREAM,’ he says. Meaning: something unique, something that he has never experienced in his life (or death?) before! (it has ‘no precedent‘). And it‘s all leading up to some kind of a climax (as if he were being ‘prepared for something‘). Again, these are all direct quotes from the movie.
This speech from the hero neatly sums up the plot to this point: he is having THE dream of his life (the one you have in the 6 to 12 minutes after you are dead? When, as the shaman woman from the movie said, your dream body lives on?) He is now becoming aware that he is in a state that has ‘no precedent‘ (being dead) and is being prepared for something … (merging with the eternal?).
In Act III the interactions with the crazies, messengers and dream characters are all quicker, sharper, and even more specific to our hero‘s dilemma. The dream characters are addressing him directly about what is going on with him, now. One even wants to tell our hero something, ‘Before he drifts (away).‘ Thus totally acknowledging the dream-ness of their existence. The hero is becoming more exasperated whenever he falsely awakes. He is getting fed up with it. You can see it in his expression.
The characters themselves no longer seem to disguise their identities as dream beings…one materializing out of a giant energy asterisk and another talking about our hero meeting a dream character in a parking lot while they are meeting in a parking lot.
Another character in this segment tells him a story of a famous person who was ‘ONCE RUN DOWN BY A CAR AND FELL IN TO A LUCID STATE!!!’ A succinct and transparent description of the plot of this movie?
Yet another dream character tells the protagonist, ‘The advantage (of running into all these dream characters) is that one of them might present you to yourself.’ Sure enough, a couple of scenes later, an old lady painting in the park approaches the hero and presents him with a portrait of himself.
The pace is accelerating. Finally, late in Act III the circular nature of the plot starts to reveal itself. First the girl from the train station reappears (I wonder, even, if she might not be the adult version of the girl with the cootie catcher in scene I). Then Charon and finally the other passenger from Charon‘s boat-car, albeit in different roles, return to the story. Even though they seem to forget the original encounter, they both have totally pertinent things to say. Charon talks about a man just returning from ‘the valley of the shadow of death.‘
But it is the ‘passenger‘ who once again delivers the coup de grace that galvanizes the whole movie, focuses it and gives our hero a clue on how he might reach catharsis and find his way out of this limbo. In this scene our hero even says, ‘I‘m starting to think that I am dead’ and that is why he can‘t wake up. To this the passenger responds with a long story that ends with the conclusion that, ‘God is posing a question to us all the time – ‘Do you want to be one with eternity?‘’ And we say, ‘No, thank you,’ until we say, ‘Yes, I give in.’
And then he tells our hero to ‘wake up.’ He does! And of course it‘s just another false awakening…Really discouraged now, our hero goes for a walk. He finds himself back at the house of the little boy from the beginning (mirroring what it says at the end of a-movie -within-a-movie from the middle of Waking Life – ‘To begin again at the beginning‘).
He starts to float up in to the air. He reaches for the door handle of that same car that was there in the start. But he doesn‘t really reach that hard this time. He doesn‘t really make a strong effort to grab on but rather just sort of waves at it in a perfunctory manner. He gives up on holding on. And then he floats up into the sky, becomes a speck and seems to merge into the blue sky there, and disappears. As if he were now one with the eternal. His motion has taken him ‘to the ocean.‘ The End. Movie over.
Now, I admit that this plot is not all that evident to the viewer at first. You have to wade through a lot of talk and ideas to see the skeleton of it. But it is there. I am not imagining it. In fact, a recent second viewing of the movie completely confirmed this for me, to the point that I am now amazed at HOW MANY lines throughout the entire piece kept reinforcing the theme and stating it in different ways.
Quotes like: ‘Say YES to one moment and submit.’ ‘Edge zone experiences.’ ‘Make a breakthrough to that common experience.’ ‘Reach for a new world.’ ‘Have you begun to find your answers?’ ‘Now my final destination is scheduled.’ ‘Death too would be wrapped in a dream.’ ‘We would dream the same after death as we do in life, never again wake up, never return.’ And finally – Kierkegaard‘s last words were – ‘sweep me up!’ Which is exactly what happens to our hero in the end; he is swept up.