Waking the Dead opens with a television image. In 1974, young Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) is watching the news, when he sees that his girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) has been killed in a car bomb explosion (reportedly engineered by “terrorists,” that all-purpose contemporary cultural monster). Fielding watches the TV for what seems like a long time, while likenesses of Sarah come to him, maybe from the screen, maybe from photos framed in their apartment, maybe from his head. You might begin to wonder how much of what’s happening is taking place in Fielding’s mind and how much is reality, such as it is.
Co-produced, directed, and adapted (without credit) by Keith Gordon, Waking the Dead is all about the scrambling of fantasy and fact, the ways that individual perspective shapes truth. This scrambling is reflected in the film’s structure which in turn reflects its source, Scott (Endless Love) Spencer’s novel. It’s fractured and eccentric, even difficult. For the most part, the narrative approximates Fielding’s point of view but it also reveals, at times, how characters around him react to his emotional displays, his assertions that he “sees a dead person,” namely, Sarah. This is the film’s best trick, the way that it makes you doubt the reality that you’ve seen on screen, on TV no less, which is, of course, the most effective gauge of reality that you, well, know.
From its opening, the movie jumps ahead to the present or the future, as the film’s base time probably isn’t fixed, exactly 1982, when Fielding is living in Chicago with his socialite girlfriend Juliet (Kissed‘s incredible Molly Parker), and running for Congress, handpicked by Juliet’s mucky muck uncle, Governor Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook). Born into (straight-white-male, and photogenic to boot) privilege, Fielding might be fulfilling his destiny when he enters politics. But he’s troubled by the compromises he’s making, the hands he has to shake and the ideals he has to give up in order to “win.” And then, just when you think the film is going to be another Candidate, it returns to Fielding’s/its weird obsession with Sarah. She’s everywhere for Fielding and so, for you. He begins to think she’s not dead, that her death all those years ago was staged, part of her group’s activist scheme at the time.
When he starts relating his Sarah-sightings, or even more hysterically, worrying that he hasn’t sighted her after all, Fielding provides the movie with a fascinating representational problem: how do you show a subjective state while not necessarily judging it to be “real” or “unreal” (or more pressingly, without assigning it the moral weight usually attached to reality and unreality)? As a means to introduce such intense and sometimes difficult subjectivity, the film’s opening feels both unusual and right, as this mundane and impersonal experience watching TV turns into something specific and horrific, too intimate, dreadful and romantic at the same time. As Waking the Dead‘s visual register becomes increasingly complicated in its representations of Fielding’s experience, with jump-cuts, harsh or confusing lighting, wide-angle screwy perspective shots, even some images (of Sarah across a street, of a woman looking a lot like Sarah across the street, recalled by Fielding’s well-intentioned but not-very-interesting sister, played by Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) that seem available only to you and one other character the narrative becomes increasingly convoluted. You begin to think that Fielding is crazy, or more charitably, that he’s distraught by his loss, or even more charitably, that she’s a metaphor for his own straggling-behind social conscience. Her purity forever frozen in time leads him to want to do the right thing.
But this is too easy. And the movie, for all its sweeping cinematic romanticism and individuals-do-make-a-difference political optimism, is not really easy. True, in Fielding’s mind and the film’s story line, Sarah occasionally reduces to an emotional cipher and ideological emblem, too pure in her commitment to mores that Fielding abandons (or never quite understands). But the film’s time-bouncing, often awkward story structure also makes this abstraction more complex than it sounds: Sarah is, more than anything else, a function of Fielding’s desire, obsession, and really, his self-image. And in this sense, she’s like a TV image, part commercial contrivance, part cultural paradigm: the Indian-skirted, gauzy-bloused girl who’d sell you some crunchy-granola ideal or maybe deodorant.
As Waking the Dead takes you through Sarah and Fielding’s early courtship, their differences look insurmountable and simplistic: he’s destined to rule, she’s discouraged by all rulers. They fight after she tells off some fat cat at a swank party; they fight when he tells off her righteous Chilean sanctuary coworkers. All right already, you’re thinking: they’re opposites. And indeed, if you take this reading too far, it might feel like an ethical or political cop-out that she dies so tragically, an event that looms gigantically in Fielding’s (and the film’s) emotional scheme.
The problem with Sarah as a character is Fielding, or rather, your dicey relationship to him: you can’t trust what he sees, much less what he says. When he’s not moping about his contamination by the political process, he’s acting like a wuss or some corny dreamer. He’s not so much corrupt as he is naive and damaged, and when Sarah comes back as a figure running just ahead of our hero through the streets, a series of dark-haired girls who look vaguely like her, or a telephone call late at night that can’t be quite real (whatever that means), she’s looking like the return of a major repressed. But she’s not Fielding’s psychological repressed (about which you tend not to care so much, because his dilemmas are so mundane, in movie-land, anyway: he wants to do well, he wants to win, he wants to please people, he wants to get his life back, etc.). Instead, she’s the return of a cultural and political repressed, and she’s haunting everyone who had (or maintains) some nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s, who lament the Reagan Era and its continuing me-me-me fallout.
As such an idealized vision of a past (that may only have existed in some participants’ minds), Sarah might be better understood as and of TV, spectacular and quaint, familiar and beguiling. History is preserved and constructed and rewritten on and as TV: you see it happening daily. This is the film’s greatest insight. It’s too bad that Waking the Dead doesn’t go the next step, and see TV’s transformation in Fielding and his career, the ways that TV can do other kinds of good work, communicate feelings, disseminate information, and create communities, even as it also rightfully, too often might be criticized for being too simple, commercial, and superficial. And in all these senses, TV reflects its viewers as much as it does its makers.