Waking the Dead (2000)


By P. Nelson Reinsch

Questions Without Answers

Though some viewers might not compare producer-director Keith Gordon to John Huston as adaptors of literature to film, Gordon makes films which are regularly praised for their “faithful” transfer of literary texts. A clear contrast lies in their choices of texts. Whereas Huston filmed Moby Dick, Maltese Falcon, and even The Bible, Gordon’s choices — The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, and Mother Night — are known but not nearly as widely read (he’s not aiming for the balcony, so to speak). As long as his films are small, he can retain considerable creative control over them. His latest is an elusive and intriguing adaption of Scott Spencer’s novel Waking the Dead.

The film moves constantly between two unfolding stories about one couple: a youthful love affair in the early 1970s and how the man is haunted 10 years later by his deceased lover. Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) becomes involved with Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), when both want to effect social change, their shared opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam being the clearest example. Fielding has political aspirations, while Sarah feels one can not work within the present system. Their relationship takes on a pattern similar to the one depicted in The Way We Were, regular disagreements followed by snuggling. Fine performances by the lead actors, and the partially improvised dialogue, though occasionally redundant, make this couple’s conflict clear and more believable than the one enacted by Streisand and Redford. They struggle with their relationship until Sarah is killed along with some Chilean protestors she had been assisting.

Fielding mourns the loss and carries on with his political career in the other story the film chronicles. He is living in Chicago and running for election to Congress in the early ‘80s, when he becomes convinced Sarah is not dead because he continually sees — or thinks he sees — her: on the curb, outside a restaurant, and elsewhere. The film shows his perspective, as late at night, Fielding wakes up in bed and Sarah is next to him but the next shot of the woman is his soon to be wife (primarily for political purposes), Juliette (Molly Parker). In such moments, we share Fielding’s uncertainty.

The film’s website features a revealing quote from Gordon: “I’m drawn to a certain kind of magical realism.” One should always be wary of directors bearing interpretations since they are selling a product and intention is always a delicate thing to consider. With this in mind, I find his comment is helpful in examining his oeuvre, where realism and reality become slippery. In A Midnight Clear, for example, young American soldiers use blood to paint red crosses to make themselves look like a medical crew and so escape certain death at their enemies’ hands. The scene is nightmarish as their friend’s blood becomes, essentially, their disguise, and it is filled with mystery as his blood allows them to find safety.

In Waking the Dead, Fielding’s visions of Sarah are either hallucinations or ghost sightings. The viewer feels close to a resolution on the questions of Sarah’s existence and Fielding’s sanity in a well-played scene where Sarah phones Fielding on the eve of the election and they talk for a few minutes. The camera holds Fielding as he and Sarah on the other end of the line begin to cry. He asks her where she is and she responds that she is “far away,” but then adds, “I’m with you.” In the theater, after I watched the couple hang up, I implored Fielding to “push *69” (as though I was watching an installment of the Scream series and trying to aid the imperiled young lady). The timeframe — 1983 — makes nonsense of my inclination, but highlights the fact that I wanted a definitive answer, particularly as the film hints at one.

Up to this point, Fielding has seen Sarah, or imagined her in place of someone else, as he does during a meeting with his political advisors: Sarah seems to speak to him but, following a shot of his surprised face, the film cuts back to a shot of a black woman sitting in what would have been Sarah’s chair. For this viewer, since the phone calls involves Fielding’s senses other than sight alone, it seems to make her existence more concrete, less easily dismissed as hallucination and stirs up the questions: “can a ghost use a phone?,” “why do we not see her on the phone?,” “if she is alive why is she behaving so mysteriously,” and “could he imagine all of this?”

Gordon’s film does not provide an answer to these particular questions, but Sarah clearly functions as Fielding’s conscience, pushing him to be a better man. In the years since her death, he has become complacent, less desiring of social change. Sarah reminds him of who he used to be, and he comes to understand this, remarking on the phone that she might not like him if they met now. Significantly, Sarah — living and dead — loves Fielding enough that she does not demand he abandon his political career, his position within the system.

The film never tidies up the conflicting political approaches of Sarah and Fielding. Comparison is encouraged particularly with a similar action by each of them. At a fund-raising dinner, Sarah verbally attacks a man who supports the overthrow of the Chilean government. Later, Fielding vents at the escaped Chileans who disparage U.S. policy, despite the fact that they have recently come to the States to be safe from their own government. Each of the lovers clearly feels passionately enough about his or her position that each is willing to embarrass the other to make a point. Viewers can feel sympathetic for Sarah’s work outside the system, because we see her working at a church, we never see her falter, and we see her martyred. But Fielding’s point of view dominates the film. We share his glimpses of Sarah and even have some of our own, without him. He is always charming, ever ready with his easy smile and when his father says that he is a “good man,” we have little reason to disagree.

Artists can deny audiences clear cut answers when they do not know the answers themselves or would rather audiences come to their own informed conclusions. This film presents the opinion that there are answers but that we do not have (regular) access to the answers. Albert Einstein once famously said that “God does not play dice.” Stephen Hawking, proponent of scientific randomness, has responded: “Not only does God play dice but he throws them where we can’t see them.” This film agrees a little with both men; there are things beyond what we see, and there may even be a design of a sort, only darkly seen.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/waking-the-dead/