I have a personal litmus test for movies. Basically, it consists of this concept: Any movie that makes me wish I was sitting through the entire original three-hour-and-50 minute cut of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara is in the direst of trouble. Rare is the film that achieves this dubious accolade, but Richard Linklater’s generally praised Waking Life (personally, I’m convinced they left an “n” out of the first word of the title) is in that select group. Yes, there are worse films than Waking Life, but — with the possible exception of My Dinner with Andre — I’m hard-pressed to recall one that scaled such impressive heights of cosmic boredom, even at a mere 99 minutes. It’s apparently trendy to praise Waking Life to the skies as some sort of daring experiment in both animation and narrative structure. Both are true. The animation is unusual, even though it’s not a lot more than a computer tarted-up version of the process called rotoscope that was invented back in the 1920s by the Fleischer Brothers. (This is the process that allowed an animated Cab Calloway to dance with Betty Boop in the early ’30s, and transferred Bela Lugosi’s sinister movements into Tchernaborg in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia — a process by which live action is, in essence, traced into animated form.) The results here — which are supposedly “impressionistic” — are peculiar. They’re even unnerving. And so far as I’m concerned, they wear out their welcome in something under 15 minutes. The structure, too, is out of the ordinary for the simple reason that there really is no structure. Instead of a structure — or even a rudimentary story line — the film follows a 20-something character (Wiley Wiggins) through a variety of dreams and encounters with a series of appallingly verbose people, who, in real life, you’d cross the street to avoid. This might be interesting enough if this verbosity resulted in anything other than the most preposterously pretentious rubbish since Andre Gregory waxed emotional over a group therapy session in which the participants nursed a teddy bear in My Dinner with Andre. The end effect is remarkably like being stuck in a roomful of stoned pseudo-intellectuals at 3 a.m. — and it’s just about as enlightening. Here’s a random example of what passes for significance in Waking Life: “The ongoing wow is happening right now. We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance, for even our inabilities are having a roast. We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoyevsky novel starring clowns.” At moments like this — and the film fairly brims with such moments — it’s hard not to believe that writer-director Linklater is of the opinion that he’s achieving total heaviosity. And just in case we doubt the intellectual significance of the film, Linklater name-drops Kierkegaard, Nietszche and Thomas Mann — not that there’s all that much to suggest a burning familiarity on his part with any of these names. Judging by the numerous enthusiastic reviews Waking Life has garnered, I am perhaps just not hip enough for this film. I don’t know. I do know that I felt like I was being subjected to an amazingly transparent con job the entire time. But then that’s almost exactly the way all of Linklater’s previous work has affected me, so I oughtn’t have been exactly shocked. For as much as a lot of us kvetch about the emptiness of mainstream Hollywood movies, Waking Life is the sort of the “art” film that proves there are far worse things awaiting the unwary moviegoer than mainstream Hollywood movies.
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