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[whitespace] 'Waking Life'
Flying High: Wiley Wiggins soars through dreamland.

Mind Control

'Waking Life,' Richard Linklater's new film, offers a beautiful animated look at the life of the mind

By Richard von Busack

IT'S ONE FUNCTION of the movies to teach us little tricks that will stay with us for life. I hardly remember the film Sweet Liberty, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Bob Hoskins, except that in one scene it demonstrated how slamming the bottom of an iceberg lettuce hard on a flat surface pops out its core, fast.

The new Richard Linklater movie Waking Life offers an unforgettable tip on how to tell the difference between dreaming and wakefulness. Supposedly a dreamer has a hard time visualizing numbers on a digital clock, fine print or shades of lighting. If you think you're dreaming, try flicking a light switch; if the room doesn't dim, you're in a dream--and now it's time to take charge of it.

Waking Life is a tour through a sleeper's dream state. The unidentified traveler (voiced by Wiley Wiggins) drifts and starts through a chain of conversations with other figures. Sometimes he tries to wake, and finds himself in another dream. He never quite emerges into the real world.

The unnamed dreamer walks and floats around his city, a cross between Brooklyn and Austin. This Dreamville is a college town. As in the director's other talk-films Before Sunrise and Slacker, Linklater shows he's still high from that first exposure to college. Some can still remember that sense of arrival: those who had been frog-marched through childhood, high school and extracurriculars by demanding parents. Others who were stateless intellectual weirdoes who never felt comfortable their whole lives, and who were suddenly living with people who understood them.

Waking Life is another reminder why, if I had my druthers, I'd always live in or around a college town. Not just because of the tenured great minds, but the idlers, too, the semibums who never wanted to leave school. In Waking Life, this class is represented by the captain of an art-car boatmobile, a brilliant barroom conversationalist, even a convenience store clerk who gets his own back by greeting his customers with a friendly, "What's the word, turd?"

Waking Life is an animated picture, digitally rotoscoped by Bob Sabiston. The animation tends to make backgrounds wobble and shift; I had the twin sensations of being fascinated and seasick.

The images drift, but Linklater's little mosaic of ideas forms a scheme. If we could control the action in our dreams, we'd have a little taste of being God. Some people can do it, apparently. (One adviser here says "You can have so much damn fun in your dreams. And, of course, everyone knows FUN RULES.") But in our waking life--the true subject of this film--how much are we in control?

Linklater's collected dialogues are a treatise on the freedom to act. Robert C. Solomon, an existentialist prof, gently counters the old argument that the godless can't really have happiness in their lives. The peace that an existentialist can have is contrasted to a tale of tortured faith at its most extreme, in the story of Phillip K. Dick's own maniacal Christian religious ardor.

But the dreamer also encounters postmodern philosophers who speculate that we're all just functions of social programming--though maybe that's not such a bad thing ("I'd rather be a gear in a big deterministic physical machine than just some random swerving [sic]," says one grad-student type).

Linklater even bends the discussion of free will to illuminate his task: how much free will does a film director have, when he has to tailor his work to a commercial audience? (Linklater takes up this idea with a crass yet hilarious quote from Billy Wilder, passed on by director Steven Soderbergh.) And the director follows the idea of free will to a negative extreme: if we're all free to do as we please, why not just go on a murder spree? Linklater stages that argument via the ravings of a jailed psycho, voiced by Charles Gunning. On a less threatening level, we drift by a few intellectual thugs, striding purposefully to nowhere. They're all mottoes and no menace: "Where there's a fire, we will bring gasoline!"

Waking Life has a length problem common to all unplotted film: after the first hour restlessness sets in. And where are all the women? There's a handful of memorable women here, particularly a dialogue by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (continuing some of their discussions from the film Before Sunrise, in a bed at last). Still, it's mostly men who have their say here. Women tend to ground men's sky-piloting with practical questions; maybe this film would have been less weightless without them.

One warning: Egghead haters, beware! Still, these dialogues on the unchained mind are music to the ears right now, when almost all the public discourse is one big howl for conformity.

"Things have been tough for dreamers," says one of the characters. Jonathan Schell, the informed pessimist who wrote The Fate of the Earth, wrote that the most horrific aspect of Sept. 11 was watching people rain from the sky. I love Waking Life for its beginning and ending, a beautiful antidote to that horror: a man aloft, gently pulled into the sky, a symbol of limitless possibilities and freedom.

Waking Life (R; 97 min.), directed and written by Richard Linklater, art directed by Bob Sabiston and starring Wiley Wiggins, starts Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the October 31-November 7, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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