Wide Awake in America

Richard Linklater seeks meaning in Waking Life

If you're a college freshman, don't read this. Just grab your newfound peers and go see Richard Linklater's new movie, Waking Life, then head off to one of those ethereal late-night dining establishments for which you'll desperately pine once the real world gets ahold of you. Discuss. For others this project may amount to an almost perfect "desert island" movie, meaning it's bursting with humanity and philosophical food for thought, and it'll remind you why you abandoned the mainland in the first place. Refreshingly unconventional though it may be, its series of obnoxiously self-absorbed non sequiturs would play out better as MTV snippets than as a feature film.

The inevitable comparison -- apart from, say, a Studs Terkel book -- is to Linklater's 1991 debut, Slacker, of which this is essentially a remake and a revision. Once again we find ourselves loitering with intent around the director's native Austin (with detours through New York and San Antonio), encountering audacious and breathlessly talkative souls who inhabit the same world only as a formality. Unlike its predecessor, however, Waking Life isn't much concerned with Madonna's covetable pap smears or a conspiratorial exodus of elitists from this smoldering planet. The nutjobs are here in force, but the director is now more concerned with picking up where Slacker left off, glibly questioning the fabric of his re-alitee.

To this end Linklater has cobbled together the vaguest of narratives, involving a wistful young fellow (Wiley Wiggins, of the director's Dazed and Confused) who meanders through town, learning about life, waking and otherwise. Interspersed with his puzzling and increasingly eerie sojourn are loads of encounters and interviews with colorful locals and amusing guest stars, representing a virtual who's who in the Linklater universe. Actors and nonactors from his previous films show up (among them Before Sunrise's Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) as do familiar locations and philosophical inquiries, sort of like a much less amusing Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for arthouse purists and pseudointellectuals.

Fortunately, although this is a terribly uneven movie, it's also complex enough to teach our nation's beloved payola critics exactly where to stuff their damned thumbs. At once pretentious and populist, Waking Life struggles with half-baked philosophical inquiry in the most common and dreary Middle American settings, steadfastly defying categorization or a polarized appraisal. Many of the participants speak with the exact same cadence, prompting one to view this less as a spectrum of humanity than a very personal puppet show; but whoever's talking, there's no dearth of deep thoughts.

Commencing with two little kids (Trevor Jack Brooks and Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) playing a game with folded paper to reveal that "dream is destiny," the movie takes us through a weird, timeless day in the life of Wiggins. He's in transit, fails to hail a friend on a pay phone, scopes a cute girl, and suddenly finds himself hitching a ride with the jovial captain of a boat-shaped car (Bill Wise), who announces, whimsically, that "the idea is to remain in a constant state of departure while always arriving. It saves on introductions and goodbyes."

Breaking with the narrative conventions he honed in Before Sunrise, subUrbia, and The Newton Boys, Linklater doesn't waste time here with the tedious trappings of the conscious world, such as identifying characters or developing a linear story. Instead his vignettes introduce us to crimson madmen brimming with rage (Charles Gunning and Alex Jones), film scholars fascinated with "the sacred moment" (David Jewell and Caveh Zahedi) and a wide array of peripheral thinkers obsessed with identity, life, death, dream, and magic. Professor Louis Mackey (the wizened anarchist from Slacker) also shows up to wonder "which is the most universal human characteristic, fear ... or laziness?"

While much of the film is as scattershot as life itself, there are a few superb sequences involving lucid dreaming that really get down to business. One features Wiggins venturing into "life's waiting room" where a strange fellow introducing himself as "the social lubricator of the dream state" explains how to tell when you're dreaming and what to do about it. Later Wiggins finds himself in the unlikely position of being approached by his dream girl -- literally. And near the end, Linklater himself offers a lengthy spiritual soliloquy involving Philip K. Dick, Lady Gregory, and the Book of Acts, discussed with wit and verve over a pinball machine. Lovely.

Technically Waking Life is a unique entity unto itself, in that the entire movie was swiftly shot and edited on video, then painstakingly animated by more than 30 artists in a computerized rotoscopelike process developed by art director Bob Sabiston. While this seemingly gratuitous manipulation could prompt charges of cut-rate George Lucas wankery, the abstractions and frequent physical transformations greatly enhance the dreamlike atmosphere. Even better, Austin's wonderful Tosca Tango Orchestra (on tour with David Byrne) delivers Glover Gill's haunting score as a dreamy trip in its own right.

All things considered, it's as easy to dismiss Waking Life as to embrace it, as its sophomoric psychobabble prompts as much frustration as stimulation. Thankfully Linklater's earnest good tidings eventually win out over his fruity metaphysics, as Wiggins realizes: "It's like I'm being prepared for something." Reflecting purpose in the chaos between consciousness and unconsciousness, the director's state-of-the-union address proves both insightful and inspiring.

 
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