Dave Made a Maze. 2017. Directed by Bill Watterson. Screenplay by Watterson & Steven Sears.
Starring Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Nick Thune, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak, Frank Caeti, Scott Narver, Stephanie Allynne, Kirsten Vangsness, Scott Krinsky, Timothy Nordwind, & John Hennigan.
Butter Stories/Dave Made an LLC/Foton Pictures
Rated 14A. 80 minutes.
The opening scenes during the first ten or fifteen minutes feel like a comedic version of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, where our main character’s not so much an explore who buys a home, he’s a young slacker artist bummed out with his life who creates a cardboard maze which proves much bigger, more dangerous on the inside than the outside.
Is that enough to hook you? Because though it sounds like an odd fantasy, and it is, there’s more than meets the eye. Just like Dave’s titular maze. Director Bill Watterson takes us into the maze just as much as he takes us inside the mind of the story’s protagonist.
In its best moments, Dave Made a Maze speaks to how an artist’s work loses its authorship becoming part of a larger community; this is where the inherent pressure for the artist to create at a regular pace comes from, at its core. The film also explores questions about the power of imagination, how the dedicated artist’s life takes on meaning only in their work, plus how dangerous their imagination can become when not correctly focused.
And in Dave is every young, struggling artist who feels lost, disenchanted with the realities of being an artist in the modern world. The maze, then, is life. Whether one survives it is entirely up to them, though we all get by with a little help from our friends.
Dave (Nick Thune), like most artists, worries he’ll never make anything whole or complete in his life. Worse, he believes he’ll never effectively change anyone’s life through his art. He hates what he’s become, that he can’t support himself being an artist like he wants. He feels that he even bores his parents.
So, in his worry, Dave cobbles together this maze. An amalgamation of bits and pieces, an indecisive mix of styles, influences, all throw together. An unsure, immature artist creating something he doesn’t quite understand. Therefore, how is anyone else supposed to? This is where the power of imagination takes hold, and we get into the concept of authorship.
Once an artist authors a piece of work, it’s in the world, a part of it. In a sense, it belongs to everyone else then. No matter how an artist hopes their work will be interpreted, ultimately art is in the eye of the beholder. This brings other imaginations into the mix. Literally represented by a film crew in the maze with Dave and Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). All these other people represent the reader, or the viewer, however the art is presented. But once others are involved, so are their imaginations.
Here, the maze begins changing, responding to them; or, the maze comes alive in how they respond to it. In a situation like this a work of art can become out of control. Added to that, a lack of one meaning becomes no meaning, nothing fixed, always changing. Part of what Dave must learn throughout their time stuck inside the maze is that he has to accept loss of control as a part of the artistic process. He fears it, but he has to accept it, or else he’ll never finish anything out of worry they’re losing authorship over their work. An artist simply has to complete their work, put it out there, and leave the rest to others.
“Is this permanent?”
“Nothing in here is“
The film works as an overall metaphor for maturing, either as an artist or as a human. Dave has to find himself, he has to learn how to follow through in life instead of always searching for that one big thing that’ll break him into fame and money. In essence, it’s the concept of growing up, realising that things take work and time, life doesn’t come all at once. On the flip side, you also can’t wait around for life to happen; you’ve got to make it happen.
A well executed visual is how the cardboard of the maze comes alive, taking its power from the imagination of others. Even further, it absorbs or swallows the blood of those who succumb to its various booby traps and pitfalls. This is the perfect image of how figuratively art, even when successful in the end, can suck the life out of the artist.
In keeping with the mood of the subject, the dialogue and the interactions between the characters is hilarious. Beneath it all is a dark edge, but it keeps the audience chuckling nonetheless. Dave’s struggle at thirty, wanting to give the world his art but not able to finish anything properly, moving along from one thing to the next convinced he’ll change his life in a single work of art, all this combines a truly raw, real story – despite its fantastical elements – illuminating a real struggle many often face when they want to dedicate their life to artistry, of any type. Again, whether Dave, or anyone, makes it through the maze towards the understanding necessary to get past that space, is left to be seen.
“Everyone are assholes”
“Everyone is assholes. No, that doesn‘t sound right.”
There’s a lot to love. Best are the stellar performances that help draw us into this strange little world, even as we’re dumped into it immediately the characters are believable, lovable, people with whom we can relate. Makes it much easier to tumble down the corridors of an endless cardboard maze in the living room of an apartment.
An unpredictable maze, deaths by cardboard, blood, drama, romance, friendship: this film has it all! In a sea of unimaginative films being pumped out for the sake of commerce, Dave Made a Maze is a shining ray of optimism, a beacon of hope crossing from an adventure flick with wry comedic chops to a semi-horror. This story has plenty to say outside of being a fun romp. But, boy, is it fun. When a story takes me effortlessly into its contained universe, making me feel like all else disappears for the time I’m sitting in front of the screen, it’s done its job. If it speaks to my soul, that’s a bonus.