Dispatches > The Buzz

Serious laughter

A deserving Oscar nominee, a romantic movie, and a new book that proves the power of a kook

Issue: "Fighting Potomac fever," Feb. 27, 1999

Comedy amid tragedy
Who would make a slapstick comedy about the Holocaust? Roberto Benigni did and scored an Academy Award nomination for best picture with Life Is Beautiful (Miramax; rated PG-13 for Holocaust-related thematic elements ). Every year the balloters try to throw a wild card into the race, and this Italian film was this year's pick. Believe it or not, it's a great movie. Mr. Benigni directed, co-wrote the script, and stars as Guido, a Jewish waiter in fascist Italy. When we meet him, he's trying to woo a woman (Nicoletta Braschi) in a country that's going nuts. Bureaucrats travel to schools lecturing on race theory, and eugenics is fare for dinner party chit-chat. After some terrific moments, the setting jumps ahead several years-and the couple and their young son (Giorgio Cantarini) are tossed onto one of those trains bound for nowhere. Upon arrival, Guido begins an unusual plan to save his son from the gas chambers: He tells the kid that the whole experience is one big joke. If the boy keeps quiet and keeps out of the guards' sight, there will be a prize at the end. Life Is Beautiful succeeds in an impossible mix of laughter and tears. After all, a more veteran performer, Jerry Lewis, tried to make a comedy about the death camps back in 1972; the result was a legendary disaster called The Day the Clown Cried that was never finished. Such a tale is completely improbable-who could keep up such a ruse?-but this story of a father protecting his son can't help but be deeply touching. Laughter works here in ways that drama might not. Because this is a comedy, it makes viewers let down their guard. Holocaust movies tend to be morally good because Nazi cruelty is the great loophole in our age of nihilism. In looking at those mass murders, the existence of real evil-the no-excuses kind-is admitted. In survival, the existence of hope must be admitted as well. Spinning the bottle
True love always leaves a few soaked hankies. At least, that's how it looks in a new movie with Kevin Costner as a man so upset over his wife's death that he puts a Message in a Bottle (Warner Bros.; rated PG-13 for adult themes) and throws it into the sea. A divorced newspaper writer (Robin Wright Penn), whose husband left for another woman, finds it washed ashore. She reads the letter and is so touched that she tracks down the author. Her colleagues in the newsroom are enthralled by the story of the mysterious man with the lost love. So she flies off to meet him in his seaside world, where the dead wife's memory casts a long shadow. There are enough touching moments in the Bottle to fill over two hours and keep a few eyes wet. Most of the movie, based on Nicholas Sparks's bestselling novel, focuses on the characters as they fall for each other and the relationship develops. A witty script and surprisingly strong performances by Mr. Costner and Ms. Penn give this more life than other recent mid-life turmoil movies like Stepmom, Hope Floats, and The Horse Whisperer. Like the latter picture, this Message features a cosmopolitan career woman who finds new life away from the big city-with the kind of guy who doesn't usually live in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It also takes time to let characters develop instead of jumping right to a big moment. Mr. Costner plays a guy with a vigorous life in a small town with gorgeous scenery, pulling off a nice comeback from the disaster of The Postman. He also has his father (Paul Newman) around to set him straight about things. This Bottle spins a theme that is oh so familiar today: that there's some soulmate lurking under a rock, someone that it's worth digging everywhere to find. This time, the Costner character is a soulmate waiting to happen. Too bad it gives us an ending certain to jerk the audience toward tears, although a bit unnecessarily. This is the sort of movie that viewers will either really love or really hate. 0techno-gnosticism New technology doesn't drive out old mythologies. And writer Erik Davis thinks that's way-cool, especially with all the way-new goodies that have come down the pike this decade. In his oddly fascinating book TechGnosis: Man, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Random House), he finds a vast, pagan feast amid the digital revolution. Skepticism, nihilism, and materialism don't fill that great personal void within, Mr. Davis writes. So our new tools feed on our inner desires and produce "UFOs, Gaian minds, New World Orders and techno-utopias that hover above the horizon of the third millennium." Put more cynically, pseudoscience follows science like the ant to the picnic. These gnostics range from Heaven's Gate leader Marshall Applewhite to vice president Al Gore. Some of them, like Nikola Tesla, Lotus developer Mitch Kapor, and A.G. Bell's friend Thomas Watson, knew quite a bit about technology. But they all latched on to the wonder, perplexity, and novelty that comes with new inventions. Their goal: salvation from the "noise" of the material world into the "signal" of pure knowledge. Mr. Davis himself seems a bit of a gnostic as he slogs through spiritualism, Scientology, psychedelia, and other gnosticisms that do battle with reason and Christendom. Gnosticism itself travels along like an intellectual virus, latching onto ideas in a movement, as the author says, "not only to know God, but to know what God knows." TechGnosis is less about PCs and CDs than a bad thread that's woven in the fabric of American life. It teaches us a valuable lesson: Never underestimate the power of a kook. One lone nutcase can be easily ignored, but if enough pop up with similar crazy notions, mass movements can be born. And much of the craziness adds up to nothing more than the ancient heresy of Gnosticism: that we must escape the concrete, physical world into a never-never land of perfect freedom where you can find pure knowledge. "Cyberspace" becomes just another frontier for the great idolatrous quest. ±

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