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Movie Answer Man (11/03/1996)

Q. On a recent "Siskel & Ebert" program you showed Hollywood's frequent use of scenes where characters outrun shock waves from blasts. There was a true-life instance of this, the day Mt. St. Helens erupted, and trees were felled like match sticks for miles around. At the moment of the blast there were two cars driving near each other and away from the volcano. One was a station wagon and the other a Jaguar (I think). When the volcano erupted the station wagon accelerated to about 80 mph and reached its limit. The Jaguar accelerated into the 100's. The station wagon was knocked off the road; the people in the Jaguar escaped. (David Shapiro, Libertyville, IL)

A. Call me a skeptic, but I don't believe even a Jaguar can outrun a shock wave. However, it might be able to get enough of a head start on an explosion at some distance that the shock wave would be safely dissipated by the time it reached the car. It's all a matter of physics. (Two readers, by the way, have worked out a scientific law to explain the Fireball Phenomenon, and it's this week's Glossary entry.)

Q. I was wondering about a claim you make in the last paragraph of your review for "The Long Kiss Goodnight." You say the target audience is apparently 14-year-old boys. That's practically impossible, since the film is rated R. Is this like outrunning a fireball?! (Robert Burns Neveldine, Seattle, WA)

A. It's a lot easier for a 14-year-old to get into an R-rated movie than to outrun a fireball. But perhaps I should have written "for audiences with the maturity and taste of 14-year-old boys."

Q. In a recent Answer Man, you mentioned Cyberfest, which is being held in March 1997 at the University of Illinois in Urbana, to celebrate the birthday of HAL 9000, the computer in "2001." But I don't think it would be HAL's first birthday. More like his fifth. In the film HAL says, "I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois, on the 12th January 1992." I checked both a videotape and 16mm print. (Steve Kraus, Park Forest, IL)

A. Last week I did an advance video interview for Cyberfest with Arthur C. Clarke, via hookup to his home in Sri Lanka. In his original novel, which is "based on the screenplay," HAL says, "I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1997." Clarke speculated that the date might have been changed in the movie because of a misprint in the screenplay or an actor's wrong line-reading.

Q. I saw the closing moments of a couple of movies on TV last week. The movies were presented in the pan-and-scan format yet the closing credits were shown in widescreen format. Any reason this is done? (Gary Currie, Montreal, Quebec)

A. Yes. Many of the words in the credits would be invisible if slice-and-dice method were used for the credits (and the opening titles). So the credits serve as a dramatic example of how much of the total picture area you're losing when you view a pan-and-scan movie. True movie lovers refuse to rent videos or view movies on TV which have been vandalized in this way.

Q. Recently, I attended a screening of "The Exorcist" at Radio City Music Hall. Although I enjoyed the film, I noticed that the intensity seemed to be lacking, thanks to the audience, which laughed and applauded at the most inopportune moments (i.e., the vomit scene and during the climactic exorcism itself). They even managed to giggle when x-rays of Regan's brain flashed on the screen! Admittedly, there were a few lighter moments, but it seemed as though every ten minutes something tickled the audience. "The Exorcist" is not your run-of -the-mill horror flick; it borders on the spiritual at times and is hardly worthy of snickering. My guess is that films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Trainspotting," with their emphasis on using violence and shock for humor, have "dumbed down" most filmgoers to the point where they can't differentiate serious chills from purposely outrageous situations. (Rob Wolejsza, Astoria, NY)

A. I heard that something similar happened in Boston last week at a screening of "Vertigo." I don't think "Pulp Fiction" can be blamed (for one thing, it's not dumb). Two factors are at work: (1) laughter is a common reaction among those too touched or embarrassed to reveal true emotion, and (2) unsophisticated audiences consider any sign that a movie is dated (period dialog, references, clothes) to be a laugh cue. I saw "The Exorcist" again a couple of years ago at the Hawaii Film Festival, while doing a shot-by-shot analysis with its cinematographer, Owen Roizman. The movie was as effective as ever. But of course the audience was probably more hip.

Q. This is a film industry question you might be able to shed some light on. I started working on a production called "Stepping in the Dogwater" for Miramax, directed by David Schwimmer of "Friends." Now, here's the thing: Everyone I've talked to has told me that they heard it's a mess, it ran into all kinds of problems on the set in Chicago, and David doesn't know what he's doing. I saw the rough cut and it looks good--I would even recommend it to my friends. And from what I heard and could see, the production went just fine under David. How does bad buzz spread? Is it just one well-placed rumor? Is someone trying to sabotage the project? Or is it some kind of accident? A consensus spread by people who want to believe they're in the know? (Name withheld by request)

A. Bad news is sexy, and gossip is one of the most powerful engines in society. A lot of toes are stepped on during the production of any film, and those whose feelings are hurt are happy to spread negative vibes. Most film shoots are a state of semi-controlled chaos, a carnival of last-minute rewrites, late production schedules, star egos, budget problems, interfering producers, agents with demands, location hassles, injuries and illness. I've visited a lot of movie locations, and the odd thing is, the shoots that are happiest and most trouble-free often produce the worst movies.

Q. I read your review of "Fly Away Home," accompanied by a photo of Anna Paquin kneeling on the grass feeding the Canada geese. How was she able to do that without getting droppings all over herself? I wonder if the movie credits list a goose cleaner-upper? Where I work, we don't walk across the grass because it is a minefield planted with green-gray goose offerings. (Robert Erck, Lombard, IL)

A. The movie's geese wranglers were Geordie Lishman, Greg Wells, Wayne Bezner-Kerr and Florence MacGregor. Where do you work?

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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