Roger Ebert Home

Life & death and the joker

Q. Los Angeles, home to the film industry, employs some of the least competent projectionists I've encountered anywhere in the world, and I'm getting tired of getting up mid-movie to complain that the picture is out of focus (the problem even surfaces in press and festival screenings!).

If presented with the option of watching films on the big screen or at home on DVD, I choose the theater every time, but it's hard to deny that one advantage of owning an HD set and Blu-ray player is that I can always count on the clearest possible image. Between focus problems and the reduced bulb levels you're frequently writing about (not to mention crying babies, poor cell phone etiquette, rising ticket prices and so many other factors), do you think today's projectionists may be under-cutting the advantage of experiencing films in theaters? Jeff Joseph, Los Angeles

A. It's not only Los Angeles. I've gone out to the lobby many times to complain about bad focus, bad sound, a dim bulb or improper framing. The most common reply: "That's how they made it." We Chicago critics see most of our films in a screening room run by Steve Kraus. I have never seen a projection error there. Perfection is possible, if the projectionist loves his job.

Q. A lot of the reviews of "300" cast it as some kind of modern propaganda. I think the framing sequence (from David Wenham, sometimes onscreen, sometimes off) tells us that the story is propaganda, but it's propaganda by ancient Greeks, featuring ancient Greeks fighting Persians, concocted specifically to get a different set of ancient Greeks to go and fight the Persians again. I don't know if that's what first Frank Miller and then Zack Snyder were shooting for. It'd be a good question for Herodotus. David F. Wall, Waltham, Mass.

A. Herodotus, as you know, wrote one of the lines of the dialogue: "Before battle was joined, they say that someone from Trachis warned him how many Persians there were by saying that when they fired their bows, they hid the sun with the mass of arrows. Dianeces, so the story goes, was so dismissive of the Persian numbers that he calmly replied, 'All to the good, my friend from Trachis. If the Persians hide the sun, the battle will be in shade rather than sunlight.' "

I know, of course, that Persia is modern-day Iran. But I didn't want to go there, because I'm not sure Frank Miller could have foreseen the current situation.

Q. In his novel This All Happened, Newfoundland writer Michael Winter has a character point out that two males cannot tell each other they love each other unless they follow it with "man." You seem to have intuited the same thing in your review of "Pineapple Express." Weird, huh? Mike Spearns, St. John's, Newfoundland

A. Really weird, man. Now give me a hug. Not too affectionate.

Q. (Spoiler alert) The Joker poses a dilemma for Batman in "The Dark Knight" that forces Batman to choose between saving two people. If Batman has an actual choice about who to save, then the moral consequences of that decision rest with him. However, the Joker lies about who is where, and by choosing to attempt to save either person, Batman only gets an opportunity to save the other person.

Doesn't the Joker's lie defeat the purpose of transferring any responsibility of a death to Batman? More precisely, doesn't the Joker's lie only exist for the purpose of fooling the audience, paradoxically removing Batman of any culpability for who dies? If the Joker only wants to be senselessly cruel to Batman, he has to bet that Batman cares a lot more about one person than the other. Seems like a lot of effort for not such a sure thing. Unfortunately, he gets lucky. Steve Sherry, Washington, D.C.

A. I rather like the Joker's deception. It provides another turn of the screw. Batman is forced to choose, and the Joker assures that his choice is futile.

Q. Re your "300" review: I discussed this film with my political communications students as an example of how oral history and legends are created. You mention the Schwarzeneggerian biceps all Spartans seem to have, the logistical problems of a huge Persian army, and their 8-foot-tall king.

Preposterous, I grant you that, but isn't that how the ancient Spartans would have told the legend to their children? I doubt they would have constructed their oral history around skinny warriors standing up to a small and famished army led by a physically unimpressive foreign tyrant. The film simply wanted to retell the legend as the Spartans did for centuries. Salvador Monroy, Mexico City

A. True enough, I suppose, but would anyone even then have believed the scope of the carnage in "300"? You have to admit that the film piles it on pretty heavily.

Q. Glad to see the recent "Answer Man" item concerning Pauline Kael. Given that the Library of America has published a volume of James Agee's movie criticism, as well as two volumes of Edmund Wilson's critical work, a volume of Kael may not be too far-fetched a notion.

In any case, two other interesting volumes of "Kaeliana" that are still available are the collection of interviews published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1996, Conversations with Pauline Kael, and the little volume by Francis Davis published after her death, Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael. Rodney F. Powell, University of Chicago Press

A. I agree; this proposed Library of America volume is a book that needs to exist.

Q. Will "Man on Wire" be prevented from being nominated for the best documentary Oscar because part of the film was re-enacted, like Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line"? Carol Iwata, Chicago

A. I asked Bruce Davis, executive director of the Motion Picture Academy, who responds: "Since 2004, when several prominent nonfiction films raised questions about whether certain practices should be ruled beyond the documentary pale, the academy's documentary branch has used an interesting approach to eligibility. Recognizing that doc filmmakers themselves have varying degrees of tolerance toward re-enactments (asking, a la Robert Flaherty [director of the 1922 documentary "Nanook of the North"], real people to do things that they had done in the past over again for the camera), "actments" (employing actors to re-create events), stock footage, distressed footage (manipulating images to make them appear "historic"), scripted sequences, and computer-generated images, the rules now place those kinds of eligibility questions in the laps of the individual nominations voters.

"No film is disqualified for using any of those elements -- in fact the rules explicitly permit them. But the director is now required to identify if and where such elements have been used in his film, on a form that is distributed to each nominations voter. If a particular doc branch member feels that a contending film has made excessive use of, say, re-enactments (and a purist may regard any such use as excessive), she is free to penalize it on her ballot. Indications to date have been that the branch is tolerant of minor amounts of any of these elements, so long as they are not employed misleadingly."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Inside Out 2
Lumberjack the Monster
Under Paris
Hit Man
The Watchers


comments powered by Disqus