Original Essay | Dream is Destiny: The Oneiric Cinema of Richard Linklater

Context: Richard Linklater is currently my favorite director. He tells stories about what he knows- a bunch of white guys hanging out in Texas. Beyond the surface level masculinity and stoner art house film vibes, there is an incredibly serious man, telling incredibly important stories using the medium of cinema. Quiet stories about the present moment, the passage of time, and the experience of dream. This essay served as the forerunner for my essay on Bazin.

Austin, TX, notable for its blue presence in a predominantly red state also serves as the locale of American and auteur filmmaker Richard Linklater. Linklater started Austin’s cinematic revolution when he founded the Austin Film Society in 1985, and spiked his flag in Texan soil, building a filmmaking home that still stands (Kohn). Maybe unironically, Linklater’s presence in Hollywood has always been countercultural. His forays into studio filmmaking have been quirky, light-hearted, “kid’s” movies, such as Bad News Bears or School of Rock or the more subtly serious Dazed and Confused. All unlikely creations when compared the the bread and butter of Linklater’s filmography; philosophic films noted for their anti-plot, youthful, vignettes exploring people, relationships, and time and space. Linklater’s early career is particularly dominated by this kind of film; almost as if Linklater embodied the early slacker revolt of the 90s, the films themselves defied the norm of the classical Hollywood standard, featuring at times, zero plot, decentralized characters, and long wandering takes. And therefore, by doing so, Linklater creates a visual meditation on the spiritual reality of holiness found in the moment, by revealing the filmic reality of holiness found in the moment.

Standard continuity Hollywood style editing, and the formation of classical Hollywood genres, left modern audiences with an oversaturation of literary films which focused on telling stories through dialogue rather than what makes cinema truly unique: the capture and reproduction of time and space. Tarkovsky claims a similar critique when he says: “If art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably. People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola” (Tarkovsky, 179). French film theorist Andre Bazin would articulate that this system of classical continuity editing removes the viewers free will from the matter, instead replacing it with a director’s calculated neurologically induced response. In this way, no communion can take place. Instead of willingly coming to the table, an audience is pushed forward into an understanding they could never have control of (Hughes). Conversely, Linklater focused on creating films against that film grain.

Film analyst and author Rob Stone in his book on Linklater’s auteurship writes, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books [Linklater’s first feature film] prefigures Waking Life in its individualised search for transcendence promised by the experience of travel, which Linklater aspires to convert into a metaphysical journey that will cure some existential malaise” (Stone 20). This existential malaise, especially found in Linklater’s earlier films, but nonetheless found throughout all of his works, is perhaps most expressively seen in Waking Life. The film is rotoscoped, producing a hypnotic, hallucinogenic animated effect, further emphasizing, and not allowing, the audience to forget that the character is experiencing a dream reality. It is interesting however, that in recollection, memories of Waking Life bare no striking dissimilarity than memories of my childhood. My childhood was never rotoscoped, but the same hazy, distorted, hypnotic movements of childhood memory, in my experience, are uniquely captured through Waking Life’s production. While many filmmakers would simply animate Waking Life’s dream odyssey, Linklater chose to film it and then create the animation effect in post, a spiritual exercise and the practical execution of Andre Bazin’s “holy moment”.

In the midst of a passionate rant, experimental filmmaker Caveh Zahedi finally exclaims: “Holy, holy, holy!”-words which mirror those called out in Isaiah 6:3 by the prophet: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory”. Within Waking Life, Caveh plays himself, a filmmaker, and elaborates on the film theories of Andre Bazin. Bazin was Catholic and found God to be manifest in all creation. (Bazin was perhaps inspired by Ephesians 4:6, “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”). Therefore, if film is the creation of a new filmic reality, our experienced reality re-presented, then every image ticking by at twenty-four frames a second is the manifestation of God.

While Bazin was a Christian, and his film theories bare the marks of his Christian worldview, and Linklater is a follower of Bazin’s theory, nonetheless, Waking Life shares many connections with the theories of Chinese Tiantai Buddhist, Zhiyi. Matthew McConaughey at one point has even quoted: “Linklater is so Buddhist he doesn’t even realize he’s Buddhist” (Gross). An example of this within Waking Life takes place when Linklater, playing himself within the film, asserts, “There is only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity”. Author Ronald Green claims this idea directly connects with the “Zen moment” found in haiku poetry (Green 41). Furthermore, Waking Life’s protagonist can be seen as experiencing reality through a Buddhist lens throughout the film: “Wiley Wiggins, the protagonist of Waking Life experiences several “false awakenings” Linklater (in character) calls them. In these moments, the audience is also left with the ambiguity of reality, unsure of whether an awakening is true or not . Similarly moments exist within Buddhism. A Buddhist is concerned with shedding the present, dream reality” (Green 33-34).

Waking Life allows viewers to drift with Wiggins through a dream world. Asking the same questions the audience could be asking about their own lives: Is this reality the true reality? Could I still be sleeping? The nature of film  (the capture of reality and the creation of a new filmic reality on screen) lends the medium to be an articulate voice in this larger philosophic conversation surrounding reality; appealing to experience and feeling, rather than philosophic campfire chats, or academic research and rhetoric.

Waking Life re-presents a series of dream-like moments. Conversations that ramble and wind, and moments that bleed into each other as the scenes themselves weave together; allowing the viewer to experience a dream while awake, ushering in notion that perhaps all of life is but a long, long, chain of dreams (Gertrud).

Works Cited

Gertrud. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Film-Centralen-Palladium, 1964. DVD.

Green, Ronald S. Buddhism Goes to the Movies: Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Gross, Joe. “Documentary on Richard Linklater Captures Director, Austin…” MyStatesman. Cox Media Group, Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Hughes, Darren. “Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies.” Seeking ‘Holy Moments’ at the Movies. BreakPoint, Apr. 2003. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Kohn, Eric. “Richard Linklater’s 30 Year Vision: An Oral History of the Austin Film Society.” IndieWire. Penske Business Media, LLC., 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2016

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. KittyHunter-Blair. Austin: U of Texas, 1989. Print.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.

Waking Life. Dir. Richard Linklater. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

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