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Waking the Impossible Dream 

Waking Life (R)
Fox Searchlight Films

Had a dream the other night:

I had just purchased a gerbil that I decided to name "Moose" or "Kitty" when it informed me that it was a librarian, and wished to have a librarian's name.

Then, my wife and I were careening through the jungle in a ramshackle old bus (with the gerbil) when we suddenly had to climb down a waterfall. At the bottom was a large cafeteria that served nothing but milk that came down through a tube from the center of the jungle.

Weird? Yes. But greatly entertaining, and free! I suppose I could pick it apart for a few Freudian kibbles, but I've always preferred to keep my head to the pillow and watch the illogical cinematic adventures of my slumber mind as they unfold.

So I was excited when I heard about Richard Linklater's new movie,Waking Life, an animated examination of dreams. If anyone could pull off the disjointedness of a dream, I thought, it would have to be the mind of the man behind the generation-defining ode to Attention Deficit Disorder, Slacker. On top of that, since visual possibilities are virtually endless in animation, the chances for genuine dream weirdness seemed high.

Alas (big sigh), the movie quickly betrayed itself as another Slackerin cartoon drag. The same litany of dime-store philosophers, ranters and conspiracy theorists appear in the all-too-familiar lineup. What I don't understand about Linklater's vision is why he'd prefer to animate a bunch of theory-damaged talking heads spewing Philosophy 101 dream clichs than to let his imagination create a wakingdream.

The film does have its moments. One ranter tiredly proclaims, "The powers that be wants us to be passive observers," then pours gas over himself and immolates non-chalantly. A monkey lectures in a film-theory class. A convenience store clerk greets everyone with a cheery "What's the word, turd?" Two talking heads turn into clouds.

But there is neither story nor dream beyond the constant reminder that the largely passive main character (played by Wiley Wiggins) is constantly trying to wake up out of the dream that is the movie.

Waking Lifeis visually stunning. Using some kind of digital overlay technique that essentially breaks a video image down into color shapes and then destabilizes it, Linklater was able to give the film a beautiful pop look that makes each scene more interesting as pure surface than a part of a story. But the swimminess of the images was a bit nauseating at times, not unlike the sea-sickness induced by the hand-held techniques used by Lars Von Trier in Breaking the Waves. (I had a headache when I came out.)

It's abundantly clear by the middle of the movie that Linklater is more interested in dreams as metaphors than as fields of possibility. Or "is life just a dream"? (Yawn.) There's no question that he sees the artist as dreamer, and "reality" as the artist's foil. But the film preaches more than it practices. And though he seems to enjoy yet another opportunity to parody the college town culture of cerebral overkill, Linklater also wallows in it.

To paraphrase the great Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, every generation deserves new images. In this, Linklater has definitely succeeded. But every generation also deserves new forms for telling or untelling stories, and Waking Lifeis, unfortunately, a rehash. I recommend seeing it, but you might want to bring your own soundtrack. If you want to see great dream movies, check out The Cell, or pick up a copy of the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. Or, better yet, go to sleep.

-- Noel Black

  • Alas, Waking Life quickly betrays itself as another Slacker in cartoon drag.

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