The Impossible Dream

Before sunrise: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Waking Life

With very few exceptions, the human eyeball connects to a person's head. More specifically, the bulb of the eye--bulbus oculi in Latin--rests securely in the fatty cavity of the orbit, where it is tethered to an array of ocular muscles and optic nerves and affiliated structures and apparatuses too numerous to mention. (If you credit only one--say, the lamina cribrosa scleræ--the others are likely to feel jealous.) It's different for horseshoe crabs, which are, like, a hundred million years old--and I would wager a guess that the eye structure on most of your arthropods is probably pretty weird, too, roughly resembling a Dungeons & Dragons cube. But when it comes to humans and eyeballs, that quivering, glassy thing stays right there in the socket. That's just the way it is.

However superficial our knowledge of ocular anatomy may be, we all have a pretty basic set of expectations, one of which is that a healthy boy's left eye isn't going to separate from his head and migrate a few centimeters into the air. Yet that's exactly what happens about a minute into the new Richard Linklater movie Waking Life. The kid is standing there outside his house--the house is ordinary, except for being animated, like everything else onscreen--and then suddenly his eye is fluttering around like a moth on a broken leash. A moment later, the kid is levitating, horizontal, in the air. His hand reaches down toward the station wagon parked in the driveway, in search of an anchor. Identifying the exact make and model of the station wagon is complicated by the distraction of watching a seemingly normal American boy whose body is not obeying the laws of gravity, and whose eye is doing some things that would alarm any responsible ophthalmologist. Unseen forces lift the boy skyward. His fingers wrap around the car handle. He hangs on.

Just as bugging-out eyes and a propensity to hover have no known etiology, they also have no reliable cure. And so, when we rejoin the boy as a young man (played by Wiley Wiggins), he still seems to have an unstable relationship with the customs of the Newtonian universe. The same goes for the rules of polite conversation. After holding an unplanned tête-à-tête with oncoming traffic, the dude can't seem to get a word in edgewise. Everybody he meets has a theory, and everybody has to talk about it. Existentialism is empowering while postmodern theory provides a grab bag of personal excuses. Evolution is not value-neutral. Time is an illusion. Words are intrinsically bereft of life. Given all the profound monologues swirling around Wiggins, you'd think the guy was auditing a series of great lectures on tape. (Indeed, in compiling a cast filled with nonactors, Linklater has enlisted a handful of University of Texas-Austin professors to run through the greatest hits from their syllabi.)

This goes on for about an hour as the rhetoric journeys from Guy Debord to The Dancing Wu Li Masters, with a rest stop at Joseph Campbell along the way. (Hypothesis: Every generation gets the My Dinner With Andre it deserves. Discuss.) Luckily, the kid is a good listener. And to the extent that we're all sort of peering through his floating eye, we're also wrapped up in these mysteries of existence.

Such are the poetics of any Linklater movie: This is a talky director who seems to consider narrative an encumbrance to the greater good of cinema. (It's no accident that Linklater's only plot-based feature, The Newton Boys, is also his weakest.) At one point in Waking Life, a band of situationism-spouting punks halt their roaming to offer assistance to a tramp stranded on a telephone pole. "He's all action and no theory," one of them says sympathetically. In Linklater's realm, there is no more impoverished condition than this.

Still, when our hero looks sleepily at his watch in the middle of yet another cosmic kaffeeklatsch, the viewer may find herself pressing her indiglo button in sympathy. Anticipating this response, Linklater has had the keen sense to defend his style through a series of metafictional exchanges. In one scene, a coffee-shop novelist brushes off a question about the nature of the "story" he's writing: His book will be about "moments." Later, citing the divine vision of French film theorist André Bazin, one sublime speaker argues that plots and scripts are inherently artificial and dishonest. The truth in film--and in life, he says--lies in "the holy moment." And then, as his thoughts soar up to the stratosphere, the man himself becomes a cloud.

It's hard to pin down someone who exists as a philosophizing form of vapor--which points to the brilliance of the animated dreamscape Linklater has created with collaborator Bob Sabiston and a team of 31 artists. After shooting live footage with a four-person digital-video team, Linklater handed the edited footage over for "rotoscoping." This term may sound like the unsavory procedure that a middle-aged man must endure in his annual medical checkup; in actuality, it is a process of coloring over live-action sequences. Watching the finished product on the screen can test one's sea legs. A garden quivers as if it's in a salad spinner; a man's hairline advances and recedes like churning surf; a vaulted ceiling rises and falls as if the walls were doing deep-knee bends. Taken in whole, though, the images are quite magical, translating motion directly into emotion.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad description of a dream. And though early reviewers have been unable to avoid calling Waking Life a stoner movie, its examination of consciousness is way more cerebral and potent than recreational users will be able to handle. An eerie menace lurks in the corners of this film--a radical will for liberation and self-knowledge--and it takes over in the last 30 minutes. Total freedom, the movie suggests, can break the moorings that hold us to our bodies and to the Earth. As Linklater himself warns while playing a game of pinball in the film's penultimate scene, "You cannot understand life and live life simultaneously." Hang on.

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