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Movie Answer Man (09/23/2001)

Q. To what extent do movies made prior to September 11, 2001, still remain relevant in our lives? We still look at movies made prior to December 7, 1941, such as "M" and "Citizen Kane," and recognize them as the great films that they are, but I watched "Clerks," one of my favorite films, earlier this evening, just to try to divert my mind from the current goings-on, and the petty complaints of a couple of my brethren (I'm from Monmouth County, N.J.) seemed not funny anymore, but rather irrelevant in light of how our existence has changed since 8:58 a.m. Tuesday. I know that we will eventually be able to again appreciate the accomplishments produced by the better angels of our nature, but I wonder if we'll ever be able to again appreciate the small, silly personal and political issues that seemed so large and overwhelming in the '90s. I wonder what you think will become of the wonderful, if seemingly petty, movies of that decade. (Thom Tolan, Norwalk CT)

A. I am having less trouble these days with the small and the silly than with the grandiose and the heartless. There are some movies from the 1990s that seem almost prescient now. A few that come to mind are "Magnolia," "Bringing Out the Dead," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Schindler's List," "Malcolm X." But those films fought against irony, and to one degree or another paid the price.

Q. Where does Hollywood go now? One of the comments made by a co-worker after watching the towers go down was "this is real and not a movie." Are special effects flicks doomed? I miss the movies of the 70's that were more character-driven. (Curt Chipman, Long Beach CA)

A. Thrillers and disaster movies have played with fire for years now, titillating us with visions of apocalypse. Audiences found it fun to laugh at images of horror, because they could feel superior. Now the smiles fade, and we hunger for films that nourish hope.

Q. Here's an idea for a movie to be made in the year 2060: An epic about the attacks against the Twin Towers. Only let the three-hour film focus mainly on a love triangle stemming from a pair of friends as stock traders in New York and a young receptionist. When one of them is on a plane from Boston to LA and another is busy with a client in the Twin Towers, the men are suddenly thrust in the middle of a terrible plot where there is chaos and tragedy, but we completely disregard the 5,000 citizens dead and instead concern ourselves with the love lives of three whining yuppies. Or, we could just look at "Pearl Harbor" and think about how horrible it is to trivialize such a tragedy on the screen. (Derek Muller, Royal Oak MI)

A. A film can be made about the tragedy of Sept. 11, but I believe it must be a small film, not an epic, it must be about individual humans, not special effects, and it should not have a happy ending but a somber and poignant one.

Q. After reading the review on your Great Movies site, I saw "The Bicycle Thief" last week. After seeing the film, I felt that something was wrong. This was caused by my presumption that the movie would end happily, with all the main characters contented. I guess to me the father character was not supposed to steal another man's bike. Or that if he did, he'd be repentant about it, and return the bike before being caught. Then gradually it dawned on me that perhaps one of the themes of the movie is human frailty. The scene where the child looks in terror at seeing his father steal a bike and thus getting caught for it seems to concede this. Even now, the child's facial expression during those moments, so full of despair and terror, haunts me with clarity. With this began my journey of empathy for the film. My question is, could "The Bicycle Thief" have been less great if it ended with a more "positive" ending: one where the father was indeed tempted to steal a bike, fought the temptation, and got blessed in return by the advent of a better-paying job? (Robert Ong Tan, Taoyuan City, Taiwan)

A. "The Bicycle Thief" was made in Italy immediately after the devastation of war, when filmgoers and filmmakers had seen too much suffering to accept facile solutions. But your "positive" ending would be the one chosen by modern Hollywood--plus an upbeat song over the end titles. In recent years happy ending have become obligatory for all mainstream films, to such a degree that for the intelligent moviegoer there is no real suspense. Now I sense that audiences will begin to replace the desire for escapism with a need for catharsis. I was asked by a friend at Toronto what film to watch in this season of hope and dread. I suggested Kieslowski's "The Decalogue," one hour a night for 10 nights.

Q. Next year, 2002, will mark the next critic/director poll for the 10 greatest films of all time. What can we expect different from 1992's? Any new additions we can expect? What are your predictions? (Evan Talbott, Baltimore MD)

A. You are referring to the worldwide poll conducted by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, which surveys hundreds of directors, writers, critics and other cineastes, and produces the nearest thing to a meaningful ranking. The 1992 list included: Welles' "Citizen Kane" Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," Ozu's "Tokyo Story," Hitchcock's "Vertigo," Ford's "The Searchers," Vigo's "L'Atalante," Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," Ray's "Pather Panchali," Eisenstein's "The Battleship Potemkin" and Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"

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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