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Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2002
Must be some kind of dream
Although there's no shortage of movies that can put you to sleep (did somebody say "festival films"?), few actually explore sleep itself, aside from the occasional hackneyed dream sequence. As coincidence would have it, two new works opening this weekend give us opposite sides of the bed: "Waking Life" is about a guy who can't wake up, while "Chasing Sleep" (Japanese title: "REM") features a guy who can't doze off.
Both films feature fluid, elusive realities -- a dream state in one; sleep-deprived hallucination in the other -- but their overall tone couldn't be further apart. The animated "Waking Life" is an explosion of color adorning a witty piece of pop philosophy, while "Chasing Sleep" is darker than dark, an unending nightmare that spirals into madness.
Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" almost feels like a belated sequel to his 1991 debut, "Slacker," the much acclaimed free-form film that defined dropout Gen-X subculture. Like that film, "Waking Life" is one long jam, a series of disconnected episodes that somehow coalesce around a single theme. This time around we get the twin ideas of "dreaming" and "waking up": How should we interpret our dreams, and what does it mean to truly "wake up" to the full realization of our place in space and time?
Heady stuff for any film, let alone a cartoon, but for Linklater this is clearly an intentional attempt to bridge the high-culture/pop-culture divide. Linklater's protagonist -- played by Wiley Wiggins, the junior-high hero of Linklater's "Dazed & Confused" -- is stuck in an ongoing dream from which he can't awaken. He initially finds this state intriguing, but then it becomes slightly freaky when he can't wake up, no matter how hard he tries.
The amorphous structure allows Linklater to do pretty much anything, but he refrains from exploring surreal oneiric territory opened up by David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." Instead, he offers us a series of talking heads, two- to three-minute monologues that often border on rants. It's like flitting from one conversation to another at a party -- some are entertaining and thought-provoking, while others are just annoying.
The former would have to include Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy -- reprising their characters in Linklater's "Before Sunrise" -- having a post-coital chat about reincarnation ("Everyone thinks they were Cleopatra," Delpy says. "I always want to tell them they were probably some dumb f*** like everyone else."); when one character's head almost explodes as he launches into tirade on the concept of "neo-human evolution"; and a wonderful moment when Wiley's having a conversation with a girl he met on a stairwell. He looks at his watch, realizes he can't read the time and asks her, "What's it like to be a character in someone else's dream?"
Less enjoyable are the cosmic gushings and convoluted rants of the many characters in motor-mouth mode, trying to cram in as many syllables as possible into their five minutes of fame. This is a film filled to the brim with people who love to hear themselves speak. While this could be said of "Slacker," the excessive verbiage here tramples all over the film's more experimental visuals, in which a dozen or so different animators used rotoscope techniques -- i.e. "painting" over the original DV footage. This look ranges from dreamy impressionism to kid-who-can't-color-within-the-lines scribbling, but overall, the wavy, unsteady style leaves you a little queasy after a while.
"Waking Life" is a risk-taking film, and often an engaging one, but it makes the fatal mistake of feeling more like a lecture series than a dream. And a heavily footnoted one at that: Leary, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Lorca, Yeats and Baudrillard are all name-checked; almost every scene starts with a line like "I read this essay by Philip K. Dick . . . " or "It's kind of like D.H. Lawrence had this idea . . . " As to Linklater's own take on dreams, though, I couldn't tell you.
"Chasing Sleep," on the other hand, has a very clear mission -- namely, to scare the crap out of you. Director Michael Walker must have watched the first half of David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and thought, "Yeah, baby, YEAH!"
"Chasing Sleep" is actually the first film I've seen that truly deserves the term "Lynchian." That Walker has fully absorbed Lynch's lessons in unease is apparent from the first shot: A man lies on a bed as water drips irritatingly into a bucket; the camera moves slowly toward a macro-closeup of a damp black hole in the ceiling; everything goes black, then fades into a wide open, bloodshot eyeball, as atonal drones rise on the soundtrack. From here on in, the Lynch tropes come fast and furious, from severed digits in startling close-up to long, ominous pauses.
If someone recommended a dark, psychotropic thriller featuring Jeff Daniels in the lead, I'd laugh long and hard. So go ahead and laugh, but it is Daniels -- the schlep from "Dumb & Dumber" and "Arachnophobia" -- who plays the sleepless guy on the bed, and damn if he doesn't get it just right.
Daniels' insomniac character is a rumpled college professor and burned-out poet named Ed Saxon who is trapped in a nightmarish scenario. Imagine Michael Douglas from "The Wonder Boys" being dropped into Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," and you'll be close.
When the sun rises, and his wife still hasn't returned home, Ed calls around, trying to locate her. His fears increase and he calls the police, who send Detective Derm (Gil Bellows from "Allie McBeal") over to poke around. Saxon holes up at home, popping sleeping pills to try and get some rest, but to no avail.
As his head gets foggier, events escalate: His wife's car is found near a coworker's home. Perhaps she was having an affair. A clingy female student comes by and doesn't want to leave. Threatening messages appear on his answering machine. Mild hallucinations ensue, with pipes clanging and piano music escaping from an empty room. And Saxon gets really on edge from all those people ringing his doorbell when he really, really needs to sleep . . .
The mystery gets unbearably creepy: Is Saxon's wife really missing? Does Saxon know something that we don't? For that matter, is Saxon even really awake? The hallucinatory audio effects and whacked-out gaze of Daniels here trump anything "Insomnia" offered. Except for one or two fairly stupid SFX-based apparitions that break the spell (including a giant baby! The "Allie McBeal" influence runs deep . . .), this is a disturbing work of claustrophobic dread. And, as I said, its message is crystal clear: "There are times," says a psychiatrist who visits Saxon, "that the pressures of daily life become overwhelming."
Indeed. Pass the pills, doc.