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Movie Answer Man (05/26/1996)

Q. Since you have been covering the Cannes Film Festival--are those leopard-skin-wearing ladies there this year? (Rebecca Costello, Ithaca, N.Y.)

A. You are referring to the legendary mother-daughter team which attends every year dressed in leopard-skin dresses, and promenades up and down the Croisette, photographed by everyone simply because they exist. Yes, they are back. But this year the trade papers have been lamenting the presence of "faux leopard-ladies"--phony leopard-lady impersonators. It is a sad commentary when even a hard-working leopard lady is ripped off by a celebrity lookalike.

Q. Concerning your comment about "Dorothy," the sensor-delivering machine in "Twister"--I also wondered exactly what all the bells and whistles were for, and why it took interminably long for Bill Paxton to "set it up" the first time, while the next time Helen Hunt flicks one switch and says, "It's ready!" In fact, it would make more sense to me if they got rid of Dorothy completely and just left the sensors spread out across the area. If the tornado can suck up a human being and a cow, it will pick up those little balls just as well. (David J. Bondelevitch, Studio City, CA.)

A. Quite true, but then the movie wouldn't have a reason why the characters have to dangerously position themselves in the path of the tornadoes. Dorothy functions like one of Hitchcock's "MacGuffins"--the machine provides a reason for the plot to move forward, without really being necessary in itself.

Q. Those of us outside the movie business are both amused and confused by stories of Hollywood's "creative financing," where a movie can "lose money" while generating revenue equal to several times the production costs. In the real world, if a company were to lose money on each item it sells, that company would soon go broke and close. A movie studio can produce a number of movies in a year, each movie can "lose money" so the studio doesn't have to pay the "net participants," and the studio can somehow post a profit at the end of the year. Did I miss something? (Steven Stine, Buffalo Grove, IL)

A. I predict a great election victory for the first political party that puts Hollywood accountants in charge of the national debt. The country would continue to lose money, but we'd all get rich in the process.

Q. Though I don't really look for extra sex or violence in a movie drama, I tend to think that any film rated lower than R is likely to be either aimed at a younger audience or not a serious piece of work. I wonder if this is a common reaction, and if studios make sure that most dramas have R-ratable content in order to market or "position" them for adult audiences, even if such content is not intrinsically necessary to the film. (David Bateman, Chattanooga, Tenn.)

A. Audience surveys have shown that teenagers tend to stay away from G and PG-rated material because they think it's for "kids," and there are anecdotal reports that some filmmakers have slipped in a few four-letter words just be to be sure they get a PG-13. On the other hand, R-rated movies face a potential loss of business from moviegoers under 17, so there is no good box office reason to try for an R when it's not necessary.

Q. I'd like to respond to the Answer Man item concerning the grim, dangerous, unpleasant futures in most science fiction movies. As someone who's written several novels set in that kind of future, I'd point out that a negative future offers more dramatic possibilities than a happy future. The audience can watch how he overcomes all the bad stuff in order to achieve his goal. And those dystopias serve as settings in which the writer is able to satirize or exaggerate present-day situations and trends, and satirize, parody, mock, and warn about the social ills that trouble him in his own society. I think that's one of the most important functions of SF. Just look at "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Jack Finney wrote that not as sci-fi horror, but as a commentary on McCarthyism. (George Alec Effinger, New Orleans, La.)

A. You make perfect sense: Conflict is at the heart of all fiction, and in a utopia life might, by definition, tend to be happy but uneventful. But here's a related question. Why does science fiction so often depict visitors from other words as hostile? Steven Spielberg has given us two movies ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.") in which the aliens were wise and benign, but most movie s-f provides bug-eyed monsters with ray guns. Is it because violent invaders are no-brainers for a screenwriter, but it takes real creativity to imagine beings from a superior civilization?

Q. In your review of "The Substitute", you wrote: "I am so very tired of this movie. I see it at least once a month. The title changes, and the actors change and the superficial details of the story change, but it is always about exactly the same thing: heavily armed men shooting at each other. Even the order of their deaths is preordained: First the extras die, then the bit players, then the featured actors, until finally only the hero and the villain are left." This is sadly true; but have you ever read any of the Old Icelandic "Family Sagas"? Everything you said above certainly applies to, for example, Njal's Saga. This type of story structure is *at least* medieval in origin. The problem is not so much in the repetition of an ancient theme, but in the quality of the execution! (Brad Miller, Ph.D. candidate in English, Univ. of Toronto)

A. Of course you are quite right. In fact, in writing my review of "The Substitute," I forgot Ebert's Law, which states: "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it."

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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