The New Age Dante

Culture | Eternity, bugs, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Who's marching now?," Oct. 17, 1998

Mork's inferno
Death, where is thy screenplay? Hollywood, like the rest of our civilization, can't handle the topic. What Dreams May Come (Polygram, rated PG-13 for death, some disturbing images, and language) takes a stab at it; the pain of grief over departed family members plays against the backdrop of a computer-animated pantheistic afterlife. Robin Williams is Christy, a kind physician who gets killed while trying to rescue someone in a car accident. He's a sweet guy so he gets a happy eternity. He discovers that the physical world is an illusion and that he can create an afterlife according to his faintest whims. He can even opt to be reincarnated into an even nicer guy if he wants. There's one problem: His wife (Annabella Sciorra) is so despondent over his loss (and the deaths of their two kids a few years before) that she kills herself. She can't deal with her grief properly, so she gets to live in a hell of her own imagination. Here we see the fatal glitch of creating your own reality: Any self-destructive traits will haunt you forever. Naturally, Christy can't bear to spend eternity without his soulmate (and this movie takes that concept literally), so he journeys into the darkness to find her. What Dreams May Come isn't badly made. The graphics never fail to amaze and Robin Williams seems to become a better actor by the day. The romance is gripping; who wouldn't feel a pang at the thought of losing one's spouse? But then there is the Jungo-mystical universe it portrays. The eschatology of the self-help section comes to life with special effects. Characters say lines like "What you believe in your mind is real" while trying to fight their fears and come to terms with their deeds on Earth. There's even a dead psychiatrist (Max von Sydow) to guide Christy through the Inferno. The pastel, impressionistic heaven of this movie looks pretty, but the story behind the pixels shows that there's trouble in paradise. Even those in heaven can lose their minds if they cross over to the dark side for too long. This Dream looks like a nightmare. The New Age, like all man-made religions, turns out to be simple legalism after all. And although it is all about heaven and hell, there is no mediator, no grace of God, no forgiveness that could bring these hapless souls into a real, objective heaven beyond what they deserve and what they could of their own conceive. Antz in your pantz
"Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy changes underlying social structure." That's how Antz (rated PG for mild language and menacing action) describes itself. This post-Disney animated feature from Disney rival DreamWorks puts the voices of Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone in the same movie and takes inspiration from Steven Spielberg and George Orwell. The big-name voices, along with Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Walken, all live in an underground world that makes Animal Farm look friendly. Everybody is separated into the worker, soldier, and ruling classes at birth and must follow orders for life. Individualism is suppressed, of course, and the Woody Allen ant, Z-4195, wants more from life: "When you're the middle child in a family of five million, you don't get any attention." He soon becomes a classic reluctant hero. In trying to win the heart of the princess (the Sharon Stone ant) he inadvertently becomes a war hero and the most wanted ant in the colony. He takes her off in search of "Insectopia," a place where he can be free of the colony and be himself. Meanwhile, the bad old military-industrial class (led by the Gene Hackman ant) is trying to take over and kill the workers. Antz is one of those movies that tries to be something for everyone. The early parts of the movie pile on witty gags about conformity that would be over the heads of tiny tots. The kids still will marvel at the ants' wandering around in their world under Central Park. Happily, the violence is much toned down from Toy Soldiers, even though Antz briefly tips its antennae to Saving Private Ryan. Where the movie starts to lag is when it gets preachy. Woody Allen tells his brother bugs to think for themselves too many times. And at times our hero, a worker ant, is played as some sort of hero of the proletarian revolution. As fantasy, Antz is cute fun. As allegory, it's buggy. Your job as your whole life
Do you live at the office? Would you like to spend all your free time there too? Many big companies-including Owens Corning, Xerox, and General Mills, are thinking just that as they build special town squares on their corporate campuses. That way, busy employees can get day care, send their clothes to the cleaners, and stock their refrigerators at work. That's in addition to the flu shots, massages, and softball teams that are growing in popularity. These are "lifestyle benefits" that go beyond the usual health package and 401(k) retirement plan. These help businesses recruit new hires in competitive areas, especially hot high-tech positions where good help is hard to find. Sometimes the company takes over as the center of personal activity. Co-workers in the cubes become the new family for the upwardly mobile. Even former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander has joined the move for corporate community. He's now an executive with Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which runs office child-care centers for big businesses like Allstate, Glaxo Wellcome, and IBM. "I think of the workplace as the new American neighborhood," he says. These new postmodern hometowns could damage already weakening local ties. A Yankelovich survey says only 20 percent of people socialize with their neighbors several times a week. When pollsters asked people where they get a real sense of belonging, 38 percent of them cited their neighborhood and 34 percent said work. This new-style social contract lets employers boost morale and build loyalty without having to pay massive raises. These lifestyle benefits are also easily retracted if downsizing comes. Corporate community fits the pattern of our age. People's private lives become increasingly tied to temporary relationships based on convenience. No one expects to sacrifice their inner selves for their benefit packages, nor will anyone raise themselves in the traditions handed down by Microsoft Corporation. An in-house cash machine or gift shop may not be the end of the world, but their overall strain could put more pressure on already weak interpersonal ties.

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