a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
“Skepticism is the beginning of faith.” – Oscar Wilde
You may have experienced dreams in which you knew you were dreaming. I’ve heard people talk excitedly about fleeting dreams in which they were semi-conscious and could control what they were doing.
Now there’s a movie in which the main character is well aware that he’s dreaming, but he can’t get out. Some viewers will be fascinated by his dreams. Judging from the reactions of a few, whose seats were empty halfway through the film, others will call this a living nightmare… or at least a dreadful bore. Too bad. You’re not likely to find a movie with a such a generous sampling of challenging conversations unless you sign up for a course in philosophy.
Waking Life, directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise) introduces us to Wiley Wiggins. Wiggins might be described as a slacker/seeker. He has the compulsion of every Richard Linklater character — he craves heavy conversation so much that I suspect he doesn’t have time for much else, like a good job or a girlfriend. His favorite songs are probably by Travis, Sparklehorse, or Elliott Smith and his favorite movies are probably My Dinner with Andre and Wings of Desire. He’s Gen-Existential. And he can’t wake up.
In each dream he goes looking for a way to wake up, and ends up sidetracked in a conversation with characters who challenge him with ideas about the nature of reality and dreams. Some are self-centered, like the despairing suicidal young man who thinks it’s time for his “lack of voice to be heard.” Some have craniums that swell with the size of their thoughts, like the man who envisions the next stage of human evolution. Others are optimistic, open-minded, offering possibilities and invitations. One young lady refuses to just pass Wiley without an intimate conversation; she’s tired of relating to strangers like ants passing inside an anthill.
This is all presented in a dizzying new mode of animation, in which animators sat at computers and “painted over” real, digital video footage of actors carrying on the conversations. What we see resembles slightly what was filmed, but the colors ripple and flow, the boundaries soft and permeable, so that sometimes the walls, ceilings, and ground are as alive and restless as the people.
Sometimes individuals morph into objects that reflect what we’re talking about. Speaking about predeterminism, one young man says, “I’d rather be a gear in a machine … than some random swerving,” and as he says it, his head turns into a giant spinning gear wheel. A young woman talks about what happens when her idea of love becomes the spoken word of love, and immediately a valentine floats from her lips and disappears into the ear of her listener. Sometimes these are mesmerizing effects, but I’m sure it will prove trying and tedious for some after the initial thrill wears off. Fortunately, these animators bring a lot of creativity to their work, so the backgrounds and peripheral images are unpredictable and enjoyably distracting. It’s Linklater’s most visually interesting and gives him good visual aids for viewers who find mere talk too challenging.
It’s an exhaustingly talk-y film. Even if you go in for this sort of intellectual adventuring, as I do, you may find yourself wishing for an intermission. Do not go in for swimming until at least two hours after the film is over. Linklater is obviously enthusiastic, and I applaud him for the variety of personalities and tones that make the film such an interesting and everchanging ride. But it suffers from a lack of sensistivity to its audience: if it moved at a more varied pace, punctuating its monologues with more music and scenery, we would feel invited to explore things rather than subject to a hundred sermons.
Wim Wenders’ groundbreaking film of spiritual meditations, Wings of Desire, is just as verbose and philosophical. But it’s also rich in small talk, comedy, visual grace, and interludes for things like trapeze acts and eyefuls of scenery. I have felt drawn to revisit Wings many times, and it has become my favorite film. I enjoyed every minute of Waking Life, but it’s best to watch it with the remote in your hand, so you have the luxury of the PAUSE button.
Two musical tangents bookend Waking Life , and they’re good enough that I dream of a director’s cut in which the band plays on at various intervals.
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Some conservative Christian critics have panned the film, saying such intellectual inquiries are dangerous, and that smart believers will not waste time exploring questions and philosophies like those in Waking Life. They don’t like that the film presents many and varied, even contradictory, philosophies.
But the film does more than expose us to many different perspectives. It also hints at where these philosophies lead. Ultimately, hopeful perspectives, those that suggest there is meaning in the mystery, and those that hint at the possibility of Someone who signalling to us through creation, are very likely going to have stronger appeal. Furthermore, I find it to be a rewarding exercise in humility and compassion when I stop and consider what the world looks like through the eyes of others. It helps me care for them more deeply, and often opens my eyes to unexpected new insights.
The film’s most satisfying, exciting breakthrough comes near the end. One conversation that features Indie moviemaker Caveh Zahed focuses on the theories of a Christian film theorist, Andre Bazin, who described film as a medium for capturing the “holy moment.” The discussion explores how we have the opportunity to see “the face of God” in any particular moment of our day, if only we look hard enough.
Linklater’s argument, as tentative and self-questioning as it is, seems to be that every moment is crowded with signposts that point to meaning and significance, and even beyond it, to the One who Speaks. Wiley comes to believe that every moment of his quest is “preparing him for something”. When one individual passes and quotes Kierkegaard’s last words — “Sweep me up” — we have our clearest clue to Wiley’s ultimate destination.
The negative responses of these evangelical writers offer us a very convenient answer. They excuse us from the hard and tricky work of seeking God with our minds. They want us to be willing to accept what we are told without “testing all things”, something the scriptures exhort us to do. They want us to blindly adhere to dogma without challenge, without effort, without faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” They err on the side of blind obedience.
I believe that God’s truth is not threatened by philosophical inquiry, existential or otherwise. His truth will still be true, no matter what philosophies I investigate. The Bible calls me to arm myself with the full armor of God, to go out there and engage the battle, not wall myself up to be safe and comfortable. The world is full of contrary philosophies. The Apostle Paul went right into the heart of secular culture. He listened to the philosophies and affirmed the parts that were true. He showed them how the popular philosophies of the day were flawed, and highlighted those parts that pointed to God. Whether Richard Linklater knows it or not, that’s what his movie is doing.
Waking Life presents us with individuals who, as long as they are sniffing out the truth, are on the trail of God, even if they don’t yet know His name. I would venture to say that in many ways these characters are pursuing God with more passion and wisdom than many Christians, who count themselves saved because they’ve prayed certain words and yet have never made an effort to get to know their savior or contemplate his mysterious nature. Those who claim to be saved but who do not answer God’s invitation to a dialogue, to a relationship, to a loving struggle… they just end up rambling on about faith like tour guides giving directions for a land they’ve never themselves traveled.
God says that in the end, many will come to him and say “Look what we did in Your name.” And He will cast them away and say “I never knew you.” Waking Life, whether Linklater knows it or not, is all about the invitation to pursue, to question, to discover God. Look at the great men of faith in the Bible… they challenged God. They asked hard questions. They got angry. David. Abraham. Moses. Job. Don’t be afraid of its questions. Follow the fragments of truth and love. And in that sense, Waking Life will help you gain “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
Writer / director – Richard Linklater
Director of photography – Richard Linklater and Tommy Pallotta
Editor – Sandra Adair
Musical score – Glover Gill, performed by Tosca Tango Orchestra
Production designer – Bob Sabiston
Producers – Palmer West, Jonah Smith, Tommy Pallotta and Anne Walker-McBayFox Searchlight Pictures. 99 minutes. Rated R for profanity.WITH THE VOICES (AND LIKENESSES OF): Wiley Wiggins, Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Timothy (Speed) Levitch, Ethan Hawke and Steven Soderbergh.
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