Unveiling the dream world of movies

Director Richard Linklater appreciates how going to a theater helps viewers deal with real life.


November 11, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

When I watched Richard Linklater's extraordinary new movie, Waking Life (at the Charles), the title of Delmore Schwartz's great short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," kept ping-ponging through my brain. When I reread the story weeks later, I found more than the title matched.

Schwartz's story begins when a man enters a motion picture theater. As he relaxes anonymously "in the soft darkness," he realizes that he's viewing a silent picture of his parents' courtship. He loses himself over and over again in his parents' story, intermittently weeping and cursing at the action on the screen. At one point he shouts to his mother and father, "Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous."

In the end, an usher lectures him to think of his own life: "You will find out soon enough, everything you do matters too much." And after the usher drags him out of the theater, the narrator writes, "I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun."

Schwartz's story is tragic, Link-later's movie is comic. Both exquisitely convey (among other things) how movies put us in a dream state in which we can confront our most extreme hopes and fears. Schwartz writes, "It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug." Linklater has admitted he's had lots of "movie dreams" like Schwartz's, and revels in the trippiness of the connection between movies and drugs.

Yet Waking Life goes beyond the psychedelic. It's richer and more mature than Linklater's earlier art-house hits, Slacker and Dazed and Confused; it's his most satisfying film next to his night-of-love romance, Before Sunrise. He had the "lucid dream" experience that inspired Waking Life when he was 18 and a senior in high school. He was roughly 38 when he started making the picture. The idea had aged just right.

Multilayered reality

On the phone from his headquarters in Bastrop, Texas (right outside Austin), Linklater says: "The idea wasn't so much the content as the structure: I could use this weird dream experience, with false awakenings and a multilayered reality, if you want to call it that, as a device to tell a story. And, as much as it became a story, it became a narrative on how to tell a story."

Or maybe how to live a life. For Waking Life consists of an unnamed young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, encountering a series of questers and thinkers who speak of conscious and unconscious possibilities that dreams open to illumination. Like Before Sunrise, this movie flows on a constant stream of words; it tests the limits of how much verbiage a movie and its audience can stand. "It definitely puts you up against the wall," says Linklater. "It doesn't work on paper. It doesn't sound like a movie. But I like to make a movie that doesn't sound like a movie -- it means you're out there a little bit."

Slacker, with its episodic structure and panoply of characters, prepared Linklater for Waking Life even more than Before Sunrise did. Yet Slacker and its cast of Austin, Texas, layabouts circa 1993 came off (to me, anyway) as hipper-than-thou. The characters in Waking Life are captivating. I ascribe the difference to the filmmaker's maturity. Linklater, of course, disagrees.

"In Slacker," he counters, "you have to accept the characters as real people, in a real time, in a real place and culture. In Waking Life they're more like mental constructs; you're free to see them the way you want to see them. They're all real people, but the film doesn't have much of a geographical or time center -- it's not exactly 'of its moment.' "

The director says this film kept "swimming around" in his head until he "finally found a form" for it: art director Bob Sabiston's brand of computer animation.

"First you shoot live action, so it's real people and real sound -- I think sound is an integral part of this -- so the animators are taking their cues from real people, real life. That's essential. In a 'normal' animated film, you would look at it and say, 'Oh, it's animated' and take it as a visual construct. But this film throws a wrench into the whole way you're used to accepting information. Part of your brain is saying, 'This is real sound, real people, real gestures,' and another part is going, 'Oh, this is obviously a painting.' So there's a certain inherent contradiction here between the artistic reality and the reality underneath.

"It takes your perceptual process to some other level -- and to that area of the brain where you would process memories or dreams. The form puts you in the right head-space to experience what we're talking about in the movie. It locates that head-space, exactly."

Unscripted moments

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