Author’s note: This post was written before the 1/16/2011 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which briefly discussed Waking Life in reference to Loughner. Go here for my reactions to that media coverage.
After the initial shock of last week’s terrible events in Arizona wore off, a couple of pop culture-related thoughts kept occurring to me this week, secondary to continuing sadness for the victims and their families, of course. One, I found myself wanting, almost needing, another viewing of Waking Life, one of my all-time favorite movies. Two, I kept hoping that Jared Loughner wasn’t a fan of the movie, or if so, that no media outlet would latch on to his fandom as a possible “story” or “connection” or “explanation of his motives.”
A bit of elaboration, for those who don’t know the movie. Waking Life is a full-length animated film directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2001. It features some of the earliest uses of digital rotoscoping, a modernized, computerized version of an old technique in which all of the animation is based on tracing over previously filmed live-action sequences. By comparison to more recent pieces based on digital rotoscoping, including a Charles Schwab ad campaign (?!?), Waking Life looks a bit crude and rudimentary, especially if you’re expecting Pixar-esque digital clarity and quasi-realism in the animation. But when the film reveals early on that you’re watching the central character’s protracted dream, it becomes much easier to follow—and deeply appreciate the beauty of—the woozy surrealism of the film’s animated world.
But for me, the film’s technical aspects are less interesting than the story and dialogue supported by the unconventional visual techniques. In the unnamed main character’s dream, he spends much of his time listening to the philosophical musings of characters who float in and out of brief scenes. With only a couple of exceptions, other human figures exist in his dream world just long enough to express an idea or two about humanity and its place in the universe. Some reflections are remarkably complex, eloquent, and even uplifting; some are bracing and righteously indignant; one is psychotic and terrifying (you’ll know it when you see it).
All this may make Waking Life sound like a bunch of rambling, disorganized nonsense, the self-indulgent meanderings of an aimless filmmaker who smoked way too much weed while editing a failed doctoral dissertation into a movie script. There’s probably a kernel of truth somewhere in that insult, but I have to flip that coin over and make the positive corollary of that argument. Taking this view, Waking Life asks a lot of the audience but offers massive returns to those with the capacity and the willingness to invest their full attention and intellectual curiosity. If you engage the full range of ideas presented in the film, it’s likely that you’ll come out on the other side feeling renewed and recommitted to making the most of the time you have in this life. Without giving away the ending, Waking Life is for me a giant, powerful pep talk for life, filled with many “holy moments,” to borrow a phrase from the film, and important reminders of the values by which I feel I ought to live. For personal reasons, I have a couple of copies of a card (and one is always nearby), which reads, “Think deeply, speak gently, love much, laugh often, work hard, give freely, pray earnestly, and be kind.” One of my all-time favorite songs is “So Much Love” by the band Home, part of the chorus of which goes, “Now it’s just your life to live, but you’re only as good as what you can give.” Those sentiments, those ethical callings, also capture what I believe is the central message of Waking Life.
One of many "holy moments" in Waking Life.
Now, back to the opposite of those shiny, happy thoughts—last week’s horrible, disheartening shootings in Arizona. Waking Life kept popping up in my mind because Jared Loughner wrote a lot about the blurred lines between dreams and reality. He also asked a lot of difficult questions about government and social control, questions which mirror many of those posed in Waking Life. Before his dark mental illnesses really took hold of him, some of Loughner’s questions contained a degree of reasonable skepticism grounded in established, though perhaps poorly understood on his part, tenets of philosophy and linguistics. He asked it in a poor, ill-suited context of course, but the question Loughner posed to Gabrielle Giffords at the much-discussed 2007 public forum—“What is government if words have no meaning?”—is a valid inquiry grounded in the assumption that government and other human social abstractions are primarily linguistic constructions. It’s exactly the kind of question that prompts much of Waking Life’s extended dialogue segments.
So the idea of the media discovering a connection between Loughner and Waking Life makes me nervous because I do not trust the media to give a fair viewing or presentation to the film’s complexities. Providing thorough, nuanced presentations of context and grappling with existential dilemmas are not exactly strong suits of the contemporary news media. Because Loughner’s writings and Waking Life both ask some questions that are difficult to grasp and even more difficult to answer, I fear that they will somehow be equated if it’s ever discovered that Loughner knew of and liked the film.
A full understanding of Waking Life, which I do not trust the news media to achieve, leads to a conclusion nearly opposite from, “He must have been influenced to do what he did by that movie.” We can all agree that Loughner became unmoored mentally, intellectually, and morally, and he lost every semblance of connection to humanity, that loss leaving a cruel indifference to suffering in its wake. But, inversely, Waking Life practically begs us, no matter the philosophical or ideological ground we ultimately stand on, to practice kindness and generosity toward ourselves and all of humanity:
Exercise your human mind as thoroughly as possible, knowing it is only an exercise. Build beautiful artifacts, solve problems, explore the secrets of the physical universe. Savor the input from all the senses. Feel the joy and sorrow, the laughter, the empathy, compassion, and tote the emotional memory in your travel bag.
There are unsettling words, ideas, and images elsewhere in the film, but healing words such as those quoted above are its true intellectual, spiritual, and emotional core. I truly hope Waking Life comes nowhere near the Tucson story of murderous cruelty. But if it does, I will continue to defend the film with everything I’ve got, because I believe its ultimate lessons encourage us to fill our lives with hope, conscience, and love.