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Movie Answer Man (04/11/1999)

Q. Seems like the revisionism is already setting in over Roberto Benigni. He delighted everyone on Oscar night, but now Richard Roeper asks in the Sun-Times, "How can he toss around words like 'firmament' and 'tranquillity' and turn such clever phrases as 'oceans of generosity' if he has such a limited grasp of the language?" Roeper also suggests that Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" isn't exactly original. He writes, "I kept thinking, Jerry Lewis is a damn genius. For it was Lewis who explored similar turf nearly 30 years ago in the most notorious unreleased film in history: 'The Day the Clown Cried.' In 1972, Lewis directed himself in the role of Helmut Dork, an emaciated, 77-year-old clown at Aushwitz who entertained children with his wacky antics in an effort to keep them distracted from their ultimate fate." Your reaction? (Charlie Smith, Chicago)

A. The Jerry Lewis film is not rumored to be a work of genius. As for its plot, it depends on how you look at it. "It is not a comedy," reports David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. "It is about a circus clown employed by the Nazis to assist in the killing of children in concentration camps." Somehow that doesn't sound like the same approach. As for Benigni's "limited grasp of the language"--he speaks English imperfectly but with enthusiasm, deliberately cultivating a colorful vocabulary, and has appeared in English-language movies such as Jim Jarmusch's "Night On Earth" and "Down by Law," and "Son of the Pink Panther." His acceptance speeches could not have been so artful unless he knew exactly what he was doing; his word choices were part of the joke.

Q. I read an article that says Spike Lee may return to the editing room to cut his latest opus down from NC-17 to R. Besides the box office, what factors into these decisions? Why would Lee ever want to tamper with his own vision? Why can't we simply accept NC-17 films.? I think NC-17 should be applied much more often; it provides strong information about the content of the movie. (Paul West, Seattle, Wash)

A. Spike Lee is indeed faced with the possibility of an NC-17 for "Summer Of Sam," his much-awaited film about David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam. I understand he is re-editing to avoid the rating. His distributor, Touchstone, like most major studios, doesn't like NC-17 because the rating makes it hard to advertise a picture or play it in some theaters. NC-17 was supposed to avoid the curse of X, but has simply replaced it. For years I have suggested an A rating between R and NC-17 (or X). "A" would simply denote "for adults only but not pornography." It would provide a service to moviegoers, it would give more freedom to filmgoers, and NC-17 would take the heat. It makes perfect sense. The MPAA opposes "A," however, because it has panic attacks at the thought of any rating that would cause them to turn away paying customers. The result: Serious filmmakers like Lee pay the price, and we're the losers.

Q. I saw "10 Things I Hate About You" last night. In the movie, they need to find a student willing to date Kat (the "shrew") and one candidate says, "Maybe if we were the last two people alive and there were no sheep. Are there sheep?" I was intrigued by the fact that in the movie he says "sheep" but in the coming attractions previews he says "goats." This is obviously related to what can and can't be said in G-rated previews, but I fail to see how "goats" is less offensive than "sheep." (Christian Morin, Vancouver, B.C.)

A. This is just the old bait-and-switch.

Q. I understand that many movie rental chains edit films for content. A perfect example is "Fried Green Tomatoes"--I've seen at least three different versions. What is your opinion on this practice, and how can I find out which chains are not editing films for my own good? Or, how can I tell before renting which films have been edited and which have not? (Julie Pomarici, Hackensack, NJ)

A. Check on the Internet Movie Database ( for the running time, and see if the video you're renting is exactly the same. Of course, that doesn't protect you against redubbed dialog, but the chains seem less concerned about words than images. Also, patronize video stores willing to promise you they do not edit for content.

Q. I was wondering how they shot those rotating stills in "The Matrix". An example would be the kung-fu training scene where Laurence Fishburne jumps up into the air and hangs there while the movie pans around him making it look like 3-D. I first saw this effect in a music video and have been intrigued ever since. I've also seen this same effect in one of the Gap commercials. (Jose Francisco Roa, Manchester, NH)

A. Such an effect can be done with Dayton Taylor's Virtual Camera technique, which the Answer Man has discussed before. (It's explained at It can also be done with images manipulated by computer. Sometimes, they "fly" actors or their doubles with hidden wires and then manipulate those images.

Q. I saw "The Thin Red Line" twice during its first run in theaters and loved it. Last night, I decided to see it again in a second run theater. The theater temperature was cold enough to hang meat. The projection bulb seemed dim, and the theatrical aspect ratio (which is 2.35:1 for the film) was only 1.85:1. Shouldn't we be entitled to the same viewing experience regardless of the price? (Daniel Smith, Athens, AL)

A. This is a subject that gnaws at me. Martin Scorsese gave me the explanation several years ago: Theater chains all over the country turn down the wattage on their projectors in hopes of extending the life of their expensive bulbs. An expert from Eastman Kodak told the Answer Man a few months ago that some theaters dim the bulbs by one-third! And not just in second-run houses, but in first-run, too. Moviegoers in some cities may never have seen a properly-lit image. The result: Sad, dim, washed-out movies. This is stupid for two reasons: (1) discerning customers never return to such theaters, and (2) according to the veteran Chicago movie publicist and distributor John Iltis, the practice does not extend the life of the bulbs! As for showing movies in the correct ratio--screen ratio is a concept that has escaped many theaters.

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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