Monday, December 24, 2001

Waking Life / ** (2001)

Sitting through "Waking Life" is like being trapped in a painting filled with philosophy students; every visual of the movie bleeds of elaborate abstractness, but you rapidly lose interest because those who stand in front of them discuss life, destiny, dreaming and imagination to a degree that feels repetitive and endless. Halfway through the film, there is a moment when a character looks over to another and asks him "what are you writing?" His reply: "A novel. But there's no story; it's just people, gestures, moments, bits of rapture fleeting emotions. In short, the greatest story ever told." This is the basic thread of logic the movie follows, because other than characters passing each other and opening themselves up to dialogue exchanges, there is no plot or element of basic storytelling contained in the picture. Needless to say, it eventually leads to ultimate boredom. And even then, that idea itself might have at least worked had the characters found more interesting things to talk about.

The movie is conveyed with the visual eye of Renoir but the narrative significance of Aristotle. Director Richard Linklater first captured live actors and settings via a digital handheld camera, and then, using computers, he and his crew animated over the footage in a style that has no specific scope or look, but one that seemingly combines elements of watercolor, anime, pointillism and, in some respects, claymation. Every element of the landscape has its own personality; when characters are walking through streets, buildings sway and pavements ripple as if they're living organisms. However, Linklater's script is vessel of confusion that disrupts the ripples in this sea of beauty; he creates a narrative atmosphere with no shape or conformity, no specific character links or names, and absolutely no clear direction. The movie's scenes can practically be watched in any order. And though the topics he chooses to talk about certainly can provoke lengthy and involved discussions, but few of them can be as tedious as the ones utilized here.

Had this been a film with a black screen and only dialogue, audiences would swear that the characters were reading from a philosopher's book.

That's not to say the film is totally without substance. Two key scenes stick out from the rest, one featuring a prison inmate played by Charles Gunning, and another in which a gas station worker and a bartender discuss the use of their guns. The first scene is significant mostly because of its look, as the animation presents the inmate in red flesh, underscoring the character's crude attitude as he foolishly displays traits of bitter nihilism to his listeners. The latter scene, meanwhile, works because the dialogue builds up to a semi-climactic resolution filled with surprise and irony, something that isn't really seen anywhere else in the film. Heck, there is even an effective moment when a character describes himself as the gear of a machine and his head morphs into one.

These sequences, of course, are presented through animation that is fresh yet nourishing at the same time, but that clouds the issue. When moviegoers are enticed by new techniques or ideas, they expect to get a whole worthwhile package. Certainly this was the case with "Memento," a film from earlier in the year that challenged the audience both through its approach and its storytelling. "Waking Life," unfortunately, meets us halfway and then ceases to elaborate. For those only interested in that point, the movie works remarkably well. However, those seeking to discover more than just eye-popping exteriors should wait for something better to pop up.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Animated (US); 2001; Rated R; 95 Minutes

Peter Atherton
Louis Black
Steve Brudniak
John Christensen
Julie Delpy
Guy Forsyth
Charles Gunning
Ethan Hawke

Produced by Caroline Kaplan, Tommy Pallotta, Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss, Jonah Smith, Anne Walker-McBay and Palmer West; Directed and screenwritten by Richard Linklater

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