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Waking Life, Jared Loughner, and the News Media: Further Notes in Defense of a Humane Film

January 19, 2011

Sometimes you want an educated guess to be accurate; other times you most certainly do not.

I surmised on Saturday that the media might latch on to certain themes in Waking Life if it ever became known that accused Arizona shooter Jared Loughner had been a fan of the film. There are clear, undeniable similarities between Loughner’s worldview and some of the film’s secondary themes and minor characters. Specifically, the practice of “lucid” or “conscious” dreaming is discussed, relatively briefly but in very positive terms, in a couple of the movie’s conversations, and this pursuit was a major interest of Loughner’s. Also, three minor characters express outrage in the face of institutional authority and, in two instances, either suicidal or homicidal responses to what they perceive as the irreversibly negative, pervasive influence of pernicious social and political forces. And as we all know, an even more warped, inhuman version of that violent impulse is what we saw from Loughner in Arizona.

Lots of beauty in Waking Life, all lost in the 60 Minutes presentation.

In short, my knowledge and deep appreciation of the film led me to be concerned that Waking Life would somehow be cited as an “influence” on Jared Loughner and perceived as having contributed, directly or indirectly, to last week’s acts of sickening cruelty. After my weekend piece, it was reported on 60 Minutes that Loughner was in fact “obsessed” with Waking Life. The coverage of the “connection” was shallow, unreflective, and intellectually careless—exactly what I expected and feared in many ways.

60 Minutes spent about 30 seconds specifically discussing Waking Life in the midst of a two-minute stretch that focused on Loughner’s philosophical bent toward nihilism and his active embrace of chaos and disorder. The “Loughner’s philosophy” segment is introduced with the words, “A lot of what you’re about to hear isn’t going to make sense.” This condescending intro insists that the ideas about to be presented aren’t worth engaging or attempting to understand. Not in so many words, it says, “If you’re normal, then you’ll turn your brain off right now, because only crazy people would want to think or talk about the stuff you’re about to hear.”

The segment then moves directly to two of Loughner’s former friends who briefly delve into Loughner’s nihilistic beliefs. He “literally believes in nothingness,” says one, drawing a contrast between “not believing in anything” and actually “believing in nothing,” the latter of which implies conviction rather than the lack thereof. It’s an important distinction that could have received a lot more focus, had the segment producers not been so eager to move on to the next piece of exciting video that, in their minds, even further clarified their grim picture of Jared Loughner’s life in the void.

Yes, Waking Life is the star of the show in the next bit, directly connected to the brief presentation of nihilism in the preceding interview. The juxtaposition is maddening because the core message of Waking Life is a clear-eyed denunciation of nihilism as perhaps the worst, most tragically wasteful philosophical path the reflective person can choose as he makes his way through the world. Unfamiliar with the other 90 minutes of the film and/or unconvinced of the importance of portraying it accurately, the 60 Minutes producers choose one of the only scenes they could have possibly chosen to support their point, at least implied, that Waking Life must be a key, foundational piece of Loughner’s views:

[Waking Life character]: Man wants chaos, in fact he’s gotta have it. Depression, strife, riots, murder.

[60 Minutes voiceover]: This character echoes something at the center of Loughner’s apparent delusions, that big government and media conspire to silence the average guy. To protest his lack of voice, the character sets himself on fire.

And, from their perspective, point made. That’s it for Waking Life and its “influence” on Jared Loughner, as the overall segment moves on to other topics, including input from Secret Service experts on other assassins’ motives and mindsets. The entire movie gets 13 words (of the producers’ choosing) to represent it.

But here’s the thing: Waking Life is not a “catchphrase” or “soundbite” movie. It’s deeply unfortunate that it is so reduced in the 60 Minutes treatment of it. Sure, one may attempt to prioritize themes and pull material from the film to defend one’s prioritization—I did as much in my original piece a few days ago. The 60 Minutes folks may argue that their excerpting was no different from anyone else’s, including mine. However, the difference, I have to assume, is that they were coming at Waking Life from a position of unfamiliarity except for the purported connection to Loughner. Hence, their motives in approaching the film, and their beginning hypotheses about it, led them to make their choices without concern for fidelity to the film’s intended meanings.

In short, 60 Minutes did almost exactly what I feared the news media would do in discussing Waking Life if the need to do so ever presented itself while covering the Loughner shootings. Thankfully, it now appears that the Waking Life story angle may quickly die down or go nowhere, as it’s already being publicized that Loughner was strongly under the sway of a series of conspiracy-based documentary films distributed via the Internet. And that’s sure to get the media juices flowing.

Still, I’ve felt compelled, as someone whose life was enhanced (not led astray) because of a connection to Waking Life, to defend what I believe should be the film’s true, positive legacy. It does now seem that my educated guess was right, in that Loughner knew of the film and claimed to have found meaning in it. But I still strongly believe that if Loughner or anyone else attributes the murders in Arizona to the guidance of Waking Life, that attribution is based not in understanding the film’s core meaning, but rather an inability or an unwillingness to do so.

I’ll conclude with a quote from another dream figure who appears in the last minutes of the film, whose words better sum up the “take-home” message of Waking Life. Of course, it’s obvious why 60 Minutes didn’t cherry-pick this one to build a different argument about the film. I thus feel all the more driven to do so:

Life was raging all around me, and every moment was magical. I loved all the people, dealing with all the contradictory impulses. That’s what I loved the most– connecting with the people. Looking back, that’s all that really mattered.

  1. Lumnicence permalink
    April 2, 2011 10:44 pm

    I think the internet films that Loughner was obsessed with had to do with the Zeitgeist movement (another something generally peaceful).

    People grasping for straws in the currents of a tragedy tend to overconnect to the meaningless, and deny the obvious. That poor young man was mentally ill, and left and right dropped the ball in a chance to have a meaningful conversation about the resources available if people think loved ones are having similar problems.

    Bad ideas, ideas people get from media and friends, they do have an effect on people’s lives, but a healthy well functioning mind should be able to deal with these ideas.

  2. June 24, 2011 1:26 am

    Just ran across your article, and thought you might be interested in mine. I’m the actor who played Self-Destructive Man in the film, and it was distressing to hear my piece inserted into the “story” 60 Minutes patched together.

  3. Lloyd permalink
    June 24, 2011 8:58 am

    J.C., your Statesman article is insightful, uplifting, and beautifully written. Thank you for directing me to it. Would that Loughner (and many other intelligent but terribly lost youth) had the capability to take their own journeys, similar to yours, from nihilistic disengagement to an ethic of loving service. I’m still in the midst of mine, as I’m sure you are as well.

    I’m also glad you ran into my piece, the second of two that I wrote about Waking Life in the wake of the Tucson shooting. The first one is linked in the opening paragraph above. When I heard that Loughner had been obsessed with both lucid dreaming and nihilism, I thought of Waking Life immediately. I just had this sick feeling that one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen was going to get dragged into the sensational media coverage and grossly distorted in the process. It all seems to have died down now, of course, but I hope you, Richard Linklater, and others associated with Waking Life didn’t face any sort of “backlash”–other than the joking ones your friends gave you, of course!

    Thanks again for stopping by, and best wishes to you and your family!

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