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Movie Answer Man (06/14/1998)

Q. My wife showed me your review of "The Truman Show," and I was crushed with chagrin to learn the movie is constructed to reveal its secret slowly to the viewer. I've already seen the "Truman Show" commercials revealing the secret. I feel betrayed. This is the third time when the advance info has ruined a surprise. The first was "Terminator 2." On talk shows, Arnold Schwarzenegger beamed, "This time I'm a good terminator! The bad guy is a T-1000, made of liquid metal, which can look like anyone." In the theater, the details are calculatedly ambiguous right until the two terminators confront each other and Schwarzenegger suddenly turns and protects the kid. At that moment, I thought--I shouldn't have known the details beforehand! The same thing happened with "The Empire Strikes Back." Magazines had cover photos: "Here's Yoda! He's an old, eccentric, funny-looking creature who's really a Jedi master!" In viewing the film I realized the audience wasn't supposed to know Yoda's identity until he started conversing with the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan. Now here's "The Truman Show," with a marketing campaign spilling all the beans. My wife contends there is no other possible way for the studio to successfully advertise the movie, but I have to believe there's SOME way to do it. (Chris Rowland, Plainsboro, N.J.)

A. And Denise Leder of Las Vegas writes, "I would estimate that my viewing enjoyment was cut by 87.6% just because I knew what was going on." Alas, almost all the Hollywood studios believe the best way to advertise a movie is to reveal as much of it as possible in the ads and trailers. Since movies live or die by their opening weekend grosses, there's no angle in waiting for audiences to discover the secrets for themselves. If "The Crying Game" came out today, it would open with the full monty. I myself am guilty of discussing "Truman's" plot on a "Siskel & Ebert" special that aired a couple of weeks before the opening, and again during our review of the film. There was no way not to reveal the secret on TV, because most of the clips gave it away. But I backed off in my newspaper review, issuing a Spoiler Warning.

Q. I have a problem with "The Truman Show." I amazed how the critics sing such praise for such an "original concept" when it was done before, and better, 30 years ago on a CBS miniseries called "The Prisoner." Patrick McGoohan played a prisoner of a village where his every move was constantly monitored on TV by the keepers of the village. He too could not escape until the last episode. The scene of Ed Harris and watching Carrey on a big screen monitor is exactly the same as the keeper (Leo McKern) in "The Prisoner," who would walk up to the big screen and trying to anticipate the Prisoner's every move. (Larry Koehn, Antioch, TN) Q. A friend of mine swears that the story for "The Truman Show" was taken from an episode of "The New Twilight Zone." (Joseph Tsai, West Covina, CA)

A. I've received letters mentioning four different possible sources. But basic story ideas are often pretty generic; this idea occurred in various forms in science fiction years before "The Prisoner" appeared. What makes one film different from another is the treatment, tone, dialog, style and acting. Remember Ebert's Law: It's not what the movie is about, but how it is about it. Of course, as with any hit movie, there will no doubt be plagiarism lawsuits.

Q. Just saw "The Truman Show" in a theater in lower Manhattan and was unnerved to see that the closing credits were all in French (as in, "Un film de Peter Weir, Le Show Truman"). I thought it was a silly joke (which, I seem to remember, was a favorite of the Zucker brothers). However, I later spoke to friends in Cleveland and Los Angeles who swore up and down that the closing credits were in English. I know I wasn't hallucinating; I saw it with a group of friends, and we were all puzzled. We couldn't imagine that Peter Weir would try something so gratuitously silly, unless he was going for some kind of alienating effect. Was it something they put in the popcorn? (Chris Dumas, New York City)

A. A Paramount spokesman tells me the movie's end titles were all in English, and the studio is at a complete loss to explain how, or if, French titles were appended to any print. Their investigation continues, he added sternly.

Q. The review of the "Truman Show" indicates that Seaside, Florida is in the Tampa area. Please! This is the most beautiful beach in the world. It is located in the panhandle of Florida. It is about 30 miles west of Panama City and 15 miles east of Destin. I agree the setting made the movie a hit as it makes my vacation twice a year a treat. (John Fryer, Ocean Springs, Ms)

A. Boy, did I hear from readers about Seaside! "You won't find anything like that near Tampa," sniffed Maggi Rubicastillo, and Varnum Spicer of Lynn Haven, Fl gave me precise driving instructions. Nor is Seaside cut off from the coast by water, as Seahaven is in the movie: That was done with special effects.

Q. You asked in your review of "Godzilla" how could they could miss Godzilla's being male. It's actually pretty easy. Lizards have semi-internal genitalia. All you see outside is a little slit, even for a male lizard. (Susan Alderman, Cambridge, MA)

A. At last I know why lizards always wear towels in shower scenes.

Q. I notice that some movies are "not rated." What's the point of a ratings system if distributors chose not to have their movies rated? (Barry Yau, Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia)

A. If distributors could not opt out of having their movies rated, the rating system would be compulsory, not voluntary, and that would open it up to court tests on the issue of censorship.

Q. At the end of your review of David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner," you noted that there is "a hole in the end of the story big enough to drive a ferryboat through." What do you see the hole as being? (Zachary Juarez, Austin, Texas)

A. (Spoiler warning.) I think there is a possibility that the Campbell Scott character orchestrated the entire con himself, which would explain why everybody was coincidentally on the boat. But I'm not sure. I have received so many long and detailed discussions of the plot points of the movie that it threatens to surpass even "The Usual Suspects" in the complexity of its analyses. In the interests of my tranquillity I have decided to discuss it no more until I have the opportunity to subject it to shot-by-shot analysis, maybe at an upcoming film festival.

Q. I saw "Bulworth" this weekend and liked it a lot. But could you answer a question for me? At the end, a homeless man tells the audience that it's better to be a spirit than a ghost. I consider myself an intelligent man but wasn't sure what the message here was. Could you shed some light? (Paul Chinn, Columbia, TN)

A. I think that means it is better to leave behind your spirit than your ghost: To be a living presence rather than a dead memory. But the homeless man, who appears from time to time throughout the movie like the Spirit of Christmas Past, is an imperfectly realized idea, and most of the reviews of the film haven't even mentioned him.

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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