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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Waking Life
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

It seems as though the “life is a dream” and “movies are a dream” commonplaces are in full force these days.  In Mulholland Drive, Lynch uses the idea of the dream to construct a clever plot and to comment on the illusion of cinema, while the movie Donnie Darko flirts with the notion of dreaming to keep the audience in doubt about what’s going on. Now Waking Life, directed by Slacker and Dazed and Confused’s Richard Linklater, takes dream life as its premise and proposes to show us how the medium is also the message.  

It’s kind of a wonderful idea, an adult cartoon, and I thought I was going to see an animated version of the postmodern X-men comics, which, in far fewer words, meditate interestingly on various philosophies of life for an age whose optimism and innocence have been shattered, and whose heroes are no longer pure and good.  But no, Waking Life, shot and edited as a regular film and then digitally transformed, frame by frame, into computer graphics, is so wordy and “pop” in its philosophical blatherings that it doesn’t even live up to the smart, brooding and visually compelling critique of the postmodern comics.  Now you know where I stand.  The funny thing about this movie is that it’s been getting reviews that veer as dizzyingly as its graphics between ecstatic celebration and teeth-gritting irritation.  I belong to the latter, with a few snoozes thrown in.  

If you give Waking Life the benefit of the doubt, what the movie does, from the talking-heads angle, is conduct a tour of various twentieth-century discourses about the meaning of life, art, dreaming, death, you name it.  There are the stumblings of college kids enchanted by their first really deep thoughts--or by the presence of a captive listener; there are the 60s burnouts who discover something marvelous about life  after having been cynics and so they rave on and on about it; there are teachers and professors so dazzled by their own brilliant minds that they cannot stop propounding their theories; there are new age pop psych philosophers with their remedies for life’s conundrums, and there’s the director who tells a weird story about a dream he had about death.  From existentialism to new age to pop science. Ok, maybe it sounds like fun?  It could have been, if the philosophies in question had been wild or wacky or cool or beautiful or smart or anything but what we hear way too often in waking life—people so desperate to be listened to that they just can’t stop talking.  The protagonist—a very sweet boy played by Wiley Wiggins (the cast is listed by name without different character names)—listens and listens and listens.  When he does finally talk it is, of course, to a woman, who is then reduced to the position of the facilitating listener the boy used to be.  And by the end, Wiley is as desperate to get out of the dream as we are.  

The folks who really want to see Waking Life are those who will appreciate its technical innovations.  The colors, the animation, the realism of the facial expressions—all these things are neat and interesting.  But the outlines waiver so much that you feel like you’re seeing double all the time, and by the end this gave me a headache.  For those of you who remember what trails were, that’s what the animation seems to simulate. And, perhaps, an altered state of consciousness is the preferred prerequisite for this experience, both on the visual and verbal planes. Either a good story or an absorbing compendium of opinions on dream life and waking would have made me happy; but here, the most profound thing one learns is how to figure out whether you’re dreaming (you can’t change the lighting). Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero. 

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001