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Movie Answer Man (01/16/2000)

Q. As a member of the Thai culture, I find your review of the movie "Anna And The King" objectionable. Certainly a critic may give a scathing review to a bad movie. However, in this case, you ventured into abuse and insult of another culture. The Thai King Mongkut is known for his initiative well over a century ago to prohibit men from selling their wives and parents from coercing children to marry, as well as for laying groundwork for the abolition of slavery to be accomplished in the subsequent reign of his son, but perhaps the dramatized version of this king was so far from actuality that you compared him to Hitler and Hannibal Lector! What's more, you reminded the readers of a more modern aspect of Thailand in your punch line about Bangkok being a "world center of sex tourism" (a tradition ostensibly established by the king, you said). Are we as readers supposed to find some parallel in an exotic, bad movie and an exotic, immoral country? You described the British attitude towards Siam and the Thai king during Anna's time as "racist and jingoistic." Can you claim your own attitude is much better? (Ekachai Sombunlcharoen, Bangkok)

A. Yes, I can. Surely one can be critical of a country without being considered racist if its inhabitants are not the same race as oneself? What I found amusing was the attempt by the end credits to paint the bright future Mongkut steered his country toward, a vision perhaps not yet perfectly realized, if indeed sex tourism and even child prostitution are facts of life, as is widely reported. I wrote of Mongkut, "Yes, he is charming; Hitler is said to have been charming, and so, of course, was Hannibal Lector." This was witty but uncalled-for, and indeed my whole review is a mite overwrought. I am tired of the endless versions of this schmaltzy love story, but should not have taken it out on an innocent bystander like Thailand. The film has been banned there, by the way, which ranks somewhere between outrageous censorship and good film criticism.

Q. What's up with all the bright yellow Kodak bags in "Galaxy Quest?" They are quite prominent in the convention scenes. I'm sure it was product placement but it looked so odd it was funny. Does anyone need that much film? (Corrina Frigon, Solvay NY)

A. Hint to product placers: Products look more convincing when they are being used, not being held up to the camera.

Q. I really have to take exception to your inclusion of "The Birth of a Nation," as a milestone in film-making. Just as you wouldn't consider reviewing a snuff film, regardless of the level of expertise utilizing in creating it, I can't understand why you would take the time to even consider this as anything other than early racist propaganda. The only thing that this film furthered was the stereotyping of African-Americans and racial hatred. (Paul C. Wright)

A. Influence and values are two different things. In my choice of the 10 "most influential films of the century," I described D. W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" as "a masterpiece, a breakthrough in art and craft, linked to a story so racist, it is almost unwatchable." All quite true. This was a list of influential films. No film was more influential in establishing the international language of cinema than "The Birth of a Nation." In making a list of Germany's most influential books, should we leave off Mein Kampf? Griffith wrote a heartfelt letter to Sight & Sound magazine in the 1950s defending himself against charges that he was a racist. Yet certainly he made a racist movie. Perhaps he was too naive or thoughtless to realize it. So different was the climate in those days that the President, the liberal Woodrow Wilson, praised "The Birth of a Nation" as "history written by lightning." Griffith also made "Intolerance," which is against racism, and "Broken Blossoms," which may have been the first Hollywood movie about an interracial love affair.

Q. Your observation that exhibitors in 1940 refused to install Walt Disney's Fantasound system for "Fantasia" is probably accurate, but the "real" reason it was never heard outside of New York was that the government forbade RCA to manufacture Fantasound, because of the probability of retooling the company for war technology in the near future (according to Marc Eliot in "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince"). Of course, exhibitors once again rejected stereo sound as part of the CinemaScope process a decade later, giving us a clue as to how esoteric stereo must have seemed, so no doubt they were also a big obstacle in 1940. (Robert Armstrong, Chicago)

A. I have a certain sympathy with the exhibitors. The disaster movie "Earthquake" featured something named "Sensurround Sound," which essentially consisted of sub-woofers the size of refrigerator cartons, cranked up as high as they would go. When the system was unveiled at the late United Artists theater in Chicago, chunks of plaster started falling from the ceiling.

Q. While attending "Sleepy Hollow" this weekend, I saw a trailer for the upcoming film "Next Friday," the sequel to "Friday" starring Ice Cube. I was shocked when I heard the f-word in the trailer not once, but several times. Now, I'm no prude (I saw both "South Park" and "American Pie" twice each), but I was offended that a major studio had so little confidence in their product that they thought the only way they could attract my attention was to spout obscenities at me. Has any other film to your knowledge used the f-word in a trailer before? (Brian Lundmark, Norman OK)

A. According to Richard L. Taylor, vice president for public affairs of the MPAA, the deciding factor is the rating of the film the trailer is being shown with. "Next Friday" has two trailers, one rated R, the other for "all audiences." Since "Sleepy Hollow" was an R-rated film, you got the R trailer. The f-word is not exactly in the spirit of the Headless Horseman fable, but what the heck). Taylor says there have been other instances in which R-rated trailers contained rough or explicit language.

Q. The John Carpenter who portrays William Randolph Hearst in "Cradle Will Rock" is NOT the same individual who directed "Halloween," but rather the acclaimed stage actor of the same name. He is linked incorrectly at the IMDB. (Jeffrey Castel de Oro, Los Angeles)

A. Thank you for steering me to his bio under "Cradle Will Rock" at Yahoo Movies, where he has a long list of credits. I trusted the Internet Movie Database, which is usually right, but was wrong this time.

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.

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