ro The themes addressed in Waking Life centre on the apparent reality of a dream
^ state. When Wiley Wiggins is not blankly listening to someone philosophising, he is
~ more often than not talking about why his dreams seem so real. The apparent
5 reality of a dream state is something that Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty has examined js at length (1984). There are times when someone, while dreaming, recognises this
6 state and says to themselves, 'This is only a dream'. O'Flaherty points out that this & is a paradox and goes right to the centre of how we define and understand reality ^ and the relative realisms of specific representations. For, the 'reality' of a dream is 2 precisely that: it is a dream. To conclude otherwise robs it of its particular
'realism'; something akin to not suspending disbelief while watching a film. (Which can be fun, or a pain, depending on with whom one is watching.) At the same time, however, to say 'This is only a dream' does recognise the specific ontological status of what one is experiencing. The sticking point is the word 'only', as this implies that the events that are being described as 'dream' are being compared, 'unfavourably', with an alternative - that is, the 'real' world of actuality, one's waking life. The thought processes inevitably go: 'Things are happening, they are weird, bizarre, unsettling - this is only a dream' (or, more forcefully, 'this must be a dream').
The comparing of the 'really real' with the 'dreamt real' sounds like a strange thing to do, but one is in actuality comparing physical reality with metaphysical reality, material with psychic reality. Such an exercise draws out some of the contradictions and fissures inherent in our experience of the world. And it is because of the plausibility of certain things we experience and see in our dreams that they can appear to have a 'reality' that spills over into our apparent waking life. O'Flaherty (45-6) outlines Freud's discussion of latent and manifest content in dreams: if one fears robbers in a dream, then the robbers are not real, but the fear of them is. It is not hard to discern here that such real affects (awakening from a frightening dream, to find that one is actually frightened) can lead to a blurring of manifest content (the frightening thing in the dream) and latent content (the fear itself). The manifest content can be equated with the experience of phenomenal or surface reality - the obvious and apparent reality that surrounds us - and the latent content can be equated with underlying relations, feelings, associations.
The seeming conflation of manifest and latent contents leads to the commonly cited features of dreams: that they are 'bizarre', 'weird', and that they consist of odd, abrupt shifts in tone, characters who morph into someone (or something) else, and other tropes such as condensation, synecdoche, symbolism and metaphor. Needless to say, these are all characteristic of animation too (Wells 1998: 68-126). However, as Bert O. States argues, there are problems with the way that dreams are described as 'bizarre'. He takes issue with the simple comparing of the dreamt with 'how things are' in waking life. Of course dreams are going to seem 'bizarre', the deck is already stacked against them in that they are being measured against the 'norm' of waking life:
To say that dreams exhibit less common sense, efficiency and reliability than waking thought seems rather like saying that objects in a vacuum fail to obey the rules for falling bodies in the open atmosphere, and ignoring the conditions responsible for the 'failure'.
The 'unrealism' of much of what happens in Waking Life is what leads Wiley Wiggins to question the 'reality' of his surroundings; ergo - he must be dreaming. Yet, dreams have a reality of their own. As does animation. As Linklater himself puts it:
this film uses dreams as a kind of operating system for the narrative, the hitch for most of the ideas. The realism of (live-action) film would have cancelled out the ideas [...].This style of animation allows you to see a different state of reality.
(quoted in Silverman 2001)
In other words, the state of dreaming and the state of animation are inextricably linked, and linked in their ability to show a different 'state of reality'. As with Benjamin's 'optical unconscious' we are given 'access' to something that is not ordinarily, straightforwardly 'there', but that needs to be uncovered and made clear.
In Waking Life many scenes revolve around the bizarre and uncanny atmosphere of events. The film begins with its putative protagonist arriving in town by train. After making a phone call to try to bum a lift - all the time being watched rather too intently by a woman - Wiley walks out of the station and is hailed by a man in what can only be described as a 'boat-car'. There is another passenger already in the car (this is actually Linklater himself, who crops up again later in the film), who remains silent, but the driver more than makes up for this with his constant barrage of talk. Ahoy there! [...] this vessel is see-worthy, as in "see" with your eyes [...] we are in motion to the ocean!!' After a short journey, with Linklater silent and the boat-car's driver offering a non-stop harangue, we have the following exchange:
Driver: So, where do you want out?
Wiley: Er, who me? Am I first?Erm, Idunno, really anywhere's fine. Driver: Just just just gimme an address or something, OK?
Linklater: Tell you what, go up three more streets, take a right, go two more blocks, drop this guy off on the next corner.
Wiley: Where's that?
Driver (looking ominously over his shoulder): Well, I don't know either, but it's somewhere, and it's going to determine the course of the rest of your life. [Bursts into demented grin] All ashore that's going ashore! [mimics hooting of ship's horn].
As soon as they drop Wiley off, he crosses the road and finds a piece of paper in the middle of the road. Stooping down to pick it up, he reads 'Look to your right'. As Wiley does so, he sees a car come careering towards him. At the point of impact, Wiley awakens.
Here, it is not just the 'it was all a dream' pay-off of the sequence that makes us think about the dreaming theme. The oddness of the behaviour of the people, and the bizarre aesthetic of the interpolated rotoscoping 6 - shimmering, wobbling -has a 'dreamlike' quality. The indeterminacy of things - for example, the boat-car - also emphasises the dreaminess. It is neither one thing nor the other, it is between the two and yet at the same time both, and it is this uncertainty that is characteristic of Wiley's dreaming/waking dilemma. It is also characteristic of the 'spectacle' that is on offer here: a self-consciously 'odd' image, which takes the rotoscoped material and amplifies it, by virtue of the extra flexibility that the software allows. The animation is simultaneously 'smooth' and somehow 'jerky'. The uneasiness felt while viewing such material stems from the uncertain ontological status of the imagery: in other words we are unsure what we are looking at. The live action footage has been overlaid by the Rotoshop technique, but it is still there, underneath the animated layer. Thus, the imagery itself has a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other status. This is a phenomenon that Alan Cholodenko (1991), following Derrida, would term an 'undecidable'. The simple either/or binarism is short-circuited, and we are left uncertain as to the status of what we are viewing. Cholodenko takes the notion of the 'frame' in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) as a point of departure for his analysis, but the rotoscope can be seen to function in exactly the same way. It 'serves to mark the unaccounted for operations of the repressed but irrepressible trace, mark of the other' (212). Tropes like the 'frame' and, as I am suggesting, the rotoscope are hybrid or composite figures of the 'both/and', of the hama [this is Derrida's term, meaning 'at the same time'], which takes the form of 'X and not X at the same time'.
The dreamlike oddness of the events and the way they are figured is suggestive of S
just such an 'undecidability', as is the general theme of not being able to determine r
(or decide) whether what one is experiencing is really real, or merely a dream-real. ^
A key aspect of dreaming that is figured in the boat-car sequence, and one that ^ Wiley discusses with various characters at other points in the film, is the idea of a waking up and yet still, ultimately, being in a dream state. This is something that a O'Flaherty discusses in her work on dreaming, and the notion of 'infinite regress' . in dreaming is also part of Hofstadter's compelling work (1980). As noted earlier, 1 there are many instances of a dream being recognised as a dream, and the dreamer 7
in some way drawing a comparison between what is happening in the dream and their reality, to the extent that they 'try to wake up'. This phenomenon, metadreaming, or dreaming that one is dreaming, is in many ways the 'central' theme of Waking Life. The notion of 'recursion' or 'infinite regress' in the dream world is, at one and the same time, highly seductive and very frightening. What if one never wakes up? What if, a la The Matrix, we are in perpetual sleep, but are 'fed' dreams to keep us 'happy'? And, as implied throughout this discussion, and in Waking Life, how can we tell the difference?7
This representing of a dream-state means we have to address the ways in which dreaming can have its own 'reality'. If it is real enough for Wiley Wiggins to be uncertain, or rather, be fooled by how real it seems (and we accept, as the film seems to, that he is not simply delusional), then we must engage with these issues. Simply put, they take us to the heart of our understanding not only of mediated representations (like films, TV programmes, computer games, and animation), but also the apparently 'unmediated' thing that is our experience of the real world of actuality. The difficulty lies in the fact that the world of dreams and the world of actuality are often seen as diametrically opposed when in fact they should be seen as dialectically linked. This is something that we can explore via Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious.
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