Archive for October 17, 2001

Waking Life

October 17, 2001

After a large and fortunately forgettable misstep (1998’s The Newton Boys), Richard Linklater is back in fine form — maybe the finest yet. The inquisitive and phantasmagoric Waking Life is linked with Linklater’s 1991 debut Slacker in that it takes the viewer on an adventure of ideas and words. What’s new here is the pulsating look of the film; Linklater shot the movie live-action, on digital video, and then handed it to animator Bob Sabiston, whose shifting tones and textures give the actors the appearance of (mostly) benevolent ghosts of the mind.

Read simply, the plot would seem to concern an unnamed young man (played by Wiley Wiggins, who was Linklater’s surrogate in the director’s 1993 nostalgia trip Dazed and Confused) who isn’t sure whether he’s dreaming or not. He moves from place to place, from person to person, and hears a wide variety of concepts mostly having to do with being and perception. Some of the talk is sort of academic and dry; other talk strikes you as the kind of enthusiastic gush you overhear at coffeehouses. (Sabiston’s visual commentary sometimes prankishly works against the philosophizing — your eye is drawn to a little figure in the background and you lose the thread of what the speaker is saying, which in one or two cases may be for the best. It may be intentional, or it may not.)

It’s significant that the people in Waking Life aren’t just talking about banal, externalized topics, though, because Linklater means us to see them all as people who live in their own heads. It’s debatable whether they’re all just living in the main character’s head — forgotten voices from different places in his brain, unlocked by REM sleep. Linklater, whose specialty is drama in miniature (Before Sunrise, his romantic comedy from 1995, featured only two people), may have pulled off his most audacious stunt yet: despite the many characters, it could be argued that there is only one character here — Richard Linklater. The movie can be taken and enjoyed as his dream, his invitation to us to climb into his head for 99 minutes and see what’s happening in there.

Which is as good a definition of art as any. The experiment is successful; leaving the theater, you may wish for a light switch to flick on and off (one character cites the act as a foolproof way to tell if you’re dreaming or not), and at certain points during the movie you may — if you’re like me, anyway — get that scary but exhilarating floating sensation you sometimes get during lengthy philosophical chats, as if you’d just left your physical self for a moment and connected with some mass shared consciousness. Forgive me; the movie inspires such daffy thoughts, and many more. Linklater bombards you with other people’s answers, hoping that they’ll dislodge some of your own or strengthen them; Waking Life, if nothing else, is a heroic act of intellectual love married to the greatest eye candy in years.

Would we want a steady diet of movies that look and sound like this? Of course not; part of what makes this experience so noteworthy is its rarity, and I’d rather see this movie inspire other directors to make comparably adventurous films than to make copies of it. (Linklater, who has never really had a mainstream hit, has escaped the horror of wannabe Dazed and Confused or Before Sunrise ripoffs.)

A true independent film that uses animation techniques to their utmost, Waking Life is off in its own world, off in its own head; but Linklater, unlike other artists who arrogantly don’t care whether you connect with their work, cares less about whether you connect with his movie than about whether the movie leads you to connect with the world. Or at least to connect with your dreams. By movie’s end, you might ask what the difference is. 5

From Hell

October 17, 2001

001FHL_Ian_Holm_016Halfway through the stunning 1999 graphic novel From Hell, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, Jack the Ripper is busily dissecting his latest victim when he suddenly finds himself in a late-20th-century office building. Either hallucinating or receiving a vision of things to come, he looks around and despairs: “With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succours you. It is inside you. Are you asleep to it, that you cannot feel its breath upon your neck, nor see what soaks its cuffs? See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you. I am with you always!” Wonder is gone; chaos has been tamed into plastic; the very gods appear to be dead. What doesn’t occur to him is that this is his true legacy — not murder, which existed long before Jack, but soullessness, apathy, insensitivity to suffering.

I wish the movie From Hell had found a way to include that passage — for me the finest in a book teeming with dark magic — but what it does include is more than good enough. Directors Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) and screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias can’t possibly pack in all the density of narrative and background that sprawls across Moore and Campbell’s phone-book-thick volume. This From Hell paints in short, sure strokes, tossing in a few of Moore’s details about events/people co-existing with the Ripper murders of 1888 (the Elephant Man, the Freemasons, Queen Victoria) while omitting others (Oscar Wilde, the conception of Adolf Hitler).

The movie also gives us a hero — Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), an opium-addled and rather depressive detective who, like the book’s Jack, receives visions. Whores are being butchered, ritually and methodically, and left on the freezing cobblestones of Whitechapel. In a plot worthy of Oliver Stone (and backed up by certain Ripperologists, as obsessive about Jack as others are about the JFK assassination), Abberline begins to suspect that the murders, rather than being random acts of savagery, may lead all the way up to the throne.

The Hughes brothers give us impressionistic bursts of violence — we don’t see the brutality so much as feel it. They also draw out the misogynistic dread of the Victorian era, the disgust toward female sexuality (another legacy of Jack that lives on — the female body can be understood only by tearing it asunder). From what I can gather, the movie is saying that what we know of violence today has its roots in politics, mysticism, and surgery — all attempts to dissect the human experience, of course. At the center of all this is Abberline and fresh-faced prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), who dreams of getting away, moving to a home in the country, and having lots of kids to love. It’s looking as if she’s next on Jack’s to-do list.

Depp and Graham, both sporting serviceable accents, add warmth and urgency to what might have been a cold movie. It’s chilly nevertheless; while discarding a lot out of necessity, the filmmakers have retained Moore’s basic outline, culminating in the Ripper’s most horrific mutilation yet, a thorough dismantling of physicality in which Jack fancies himself giving a lecture on anatomy to an appreciative surgical-theater class. Somehow, the movie taps into the book’s uncanny implication that the very air is charged with malevolent ancient spirits, that our houses and bodies are just thin shells warding them off, ineffectually.

From Hell leaves you metaphysically disquieted rather than pleasurably spooked. Those in the mood for a crackling gothic-horror murder mystery may want to rent Sleepy Hollow, also with Depp; this one’s a bit tougher to shake off. The movie is beautifully squalid and dank — cinematographer Peter Deming, who also shot David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, should take a step up in his profession for this double whammy — and the script, taking as much as possible from Moore, is satisfyingly literate. The Hughes brothers, too, have proven themselves masters of violence among the urban class — this one just happens to unfold in 1888 London. I regret a bit of copping out at the end, but even this is balanced with rhyming portraits of desolation and loss: Jack and Abberline, alone and oblivious, communing with the spirits in their heads — the connective tissue between good and evil has become delirium, and the Ripper is with us always.