Dreams Work

Fantasia: Actor Wiley Wiggins, morphed into an animated character, in Waking Life.

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is an astounding, one-of-a-kind movie. A live-action film shot and edited on digital video, it was then “painted over” by more than 30 computer-graphics artists under the supervision of art director Bob Sabiston, and the result has a shimmering sinuosity. That’s entirely appropriate for a movie about consciousness and dream states and how we apprehend reality. A nameless young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, passes through a linked series of vignettes in which people, singly or in groups, offer up their philosophical ramblings and pensées. As with the boy, we are never sure what is real and what is a dream. The imagery may pulsate, but the dialogue track is recorded straightforwardly, without artifice, and the clash between eye and ear is highly evocative and unsettling. Watching this film is like inhabiting two planes of emotion simultaneously, one soaring, the other down-to-earth. We’re pulled in opposite directions, and yet, as both an intellectual and sensual experience, it all adds up. Or, to be more exact, the disarray of moods and ideas in this film forms its own kind of completeness. Linklater doesn’t attempt to tie anything up, because life can’t be tied up. Like any card-carrying postmodernist, he has a profound respect for ambiguity.

I realize this may sound like a snooze, or, worse, a pretentious snooze. It’s anything but. If there was ever a film that made ontological exploration fun, this is it. Linklater uses a tango-music track, and you can see why: With its split-second way of turning the corner on emotions, from the giddy to the tragic and back again, the sound of tango has the same sensual pliability as filmed animation. Waking Life revels in the chaos of conceits and of dreams, but in the process of taking itself very seriously, it also has a frisky, self-deprecating side. (In one scene, a band of men declare that they are “all theory and no action.”) Linklater is like some brainy philosophy grad student who sees both the fervor and the whimsy in all this conceptualizing. For a movie that is so metaphysics-minded, it has an almost tender acceptance of how people can be bollixed by their own high-flown ruminations. It also has an awareness of how ideas can madden people and rip them out of their senses; a monologue of a jailed, vengeful man, his head a red bulb of hate, is particularly terrifying.

The mood of impassioned, questioning sympathy in Waking Life is similar to Godard’s in his films from the sixties and seventies, especially La Chinoise, with its agitating intellectual renegades. Linklater didn’t write his screenplay, exactly; for the most part he shaped and orchestrated the self-scripted discourse of his separate characters, each chosen for their oddball passions. (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, from Linklater’s Before Sunrise, and Speed Levitch, the motormouth real-life tour guide from the documentary The Cruise, all turn up, but most of the other performers, including Linklater himself, are nonactors.) At one point, somebody tells the boy, “Your life is yours to create,” and that’s the spirit of the movie, too; Linklater and his animators appear to be whipping up the experience right before our eyes (although, in fact, it took about 250 hours of animation work to create each minute of film).

There’s an awed wonderment at the core of Waking Life, not only for what it means to be wide-eyed but also for the properties of film itself. Much has been made by film theoreticians of the dreamlike nature of moviegoing, and most of the time this talk is just babble; if anything, we watch movies, good ones anyway, in a state of heightened consciousness. But Linklater is right in believing that, in the way movies are put together, their sense of time and place and memory mimic the nonlinear jumble of how our minds work. At least that’s how Waking Life works. Its young visionary, who seems to be living inside a lucid dream, is the viewer’s counterpart. Like him, we find ourselves fighting our way out of false awakenings. Waking Life may have been shot initially in a live-action format, but it needed the shape-shifting fluency of animation to bring out its essence. After you’ve finished watching it, you can’t imagine it being done any other way.

Drew Barrymore doesn’t play big dramatic moments as if they were big dramatic moments. I mean this as a compliment. In Riding in Cars With Boys, her puckish wiles continually undercut the slobberiness. Based on the best-selling memoir by Beverly Donofrio, the film is about her travails as a 15-year-old high-school dropout mother and the messiness and victories of her life over the next twenty years. In other words, it’s a movie about a survivor, a genre particularly prone to hearts and flowers. Beverly is supposed to be a bad girl running with the wrong crowd, but most of the time she seems to be right out of a serioso episode of Laverne & Shirley, the TV series that co-starred this film’s director, Penny Marshall.

Beverly’s yen to chuck her dismal working-class existence, go to college, and become a writer doesn’t take hold of our imaginations, perhaps because her writing is never shown to be much more than a lark and because, despite having a junkie husband (Steve Zahn) and a distant father (James Woods), she seems to love her son and accept her life. Riding in Cars With Boys is an example of a movie wanting to be one thing (comically soul-searching, triumphant) and turning out to be another (sentimental, sitcomlike). It doesn’t even show much of Beverly riding in cars with boys. But thank God for Barrymore: When Beverly’s water breaks and she looks down at her feet and cries, “This is so gross,” you know how good this actress can be, and how good this movie might have been.

In The Last Castle, Robert Redford is a court-martialed three-star general in a military prison run by a fanatically envious warden (James Gandolfini). Redford rallies the criminally abused prisoners to revolt. The film, directed by Rod Lurie and written by David Scarpa and Graham Yost, plays out like Cool Hand Luke meets Attica, and it’s quite the silliest thing. Did I mention that the despicable warden plays classical music in his office?

Waking Life
Directed by Richard Linklater.
Riding in Cars With Boys
Starring Drew Barrymore.
The Last Castle
Starring Robert Redford.

Dreams Work