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Movie Answer Man (11/16/2003)

Q. A few critic's groups have cancelled their annual awards in protest of Jack Valenti's ban on sending out DVD screeners to industry and press. Isn't this counter-productive to their cause? Such awards are the perfect way to remind viewers of movies that the Academy will overlook or not see because of the ban. (Michael Chichester, West Chester Pa)

A. I agree. I wrote that Valenti's original ban was boneheaded, but I oppose the decision to cancel critics' awards because the result would be to punish worthy films--which is exactly what the ban could also do. The nation's critics have sent each other countless and endless e-mails about the Valenti Decree; if only they were equally disturbed by the MPAA's lack of a workable adult rating.

Q. Yesterday I saw the wonderful "Lost in Translation." About two thirds of the way though realized that there was no swearing or vulgar language. I thought for sure that I must be seeing a PG-rated film. I was shocked to see that according the movie's poster the MPAA rated the film as "R." Could it have been because of a few risky moves by the fully-clothed stripper in the film? Next to the lobby poster for "Translation" was another MPAA rating travesty, "Whale Rider." The MPAA's crime against this film has been done to death but hash pipe or no hash pipe I still can't imagine why that film would deserve at "PG," let alone a "PG-13." This is a film for the ages that would be healthy viewing for all. Maybe somebody from the MPAA could step forward and help rationalize why a film like "Kill Bill," covered wall to wall with freshly extracted human entrails, is only one step more dangerous for us than "Whale Rider" and how "Lost in Translation" could be just as disturbing for viewers as "Kill Bill." Please help me understand. (Joe Taylor, Carbondale IL)

A. Gladly. The MPAA rating system is guided by the greed of the movie industry and its fear of the religious right. (1) Greed: It opposes a workable adults-only rating, because the industry doesn't want a category that would actually require them to turn away potential customers. Thus movies are crammed into the R category, sometimes having to be edited to qualify. We need an A-for-adult rating between the R and the NC-17 (a.k.a. X), to separate non-porn adult films from pornography. (2) Fear. Terrified of outside censorship, the MPAA is more sensitive to content involving language, mild sexuality and subtle drug references than the average American moviegoer. "Whale Rider" is a classic example of a film which Americans have embraced as ideal family entertainment; the PG-13 is a wild overreaction. We actually showed the offending "drug" scene on Ebert & Roeper and received not one single complaint. The best source for sane and objective information about the content of films is

Q. In a recent column, you noted that when microphones are visible, it is the fault of the projectionist not framing the film correctly. The fault lies with untrained and unskilled actors so used to having a microphone dangling inches above their heads that they speak nearly every line in a whisper. I've yet to see a visible microphone in a film starring Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Patrick Stewart, Anthony Hopkins, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, or any of the other tremendous, and properly trained, actors. These artisans know how to project their voice, even in a tender and intimate moment, to the microphone and beyond. (B. Michael McFarland, Berwyn IL)

A. A nice theory, but incorrect. Microphone placement has much more to do with overall sound quality than the voice abilities of movie actors, and indeed many stage-trained actors have to be urged to dial down their voices. Billy Wilder asked Jack Lemmon to speak lower so often that Lemmon finally said, "What do you want? Nothing?" And Wilder replied: "Please God!"

Q. Re: the recent Answer Man item about visible microphones at the top of the frame in a movie. You blame it on the projectionist. My question is, should the microphones be eliminated during editing? I design pages for a newspaper. I would never type "our readers are morons" far off into the upper margin, then blame the men working the press when it appeared in print. (Bill Huber, Green Bay News-Chronicle, WI)

A. I referred your message to Steve Kraus of the Lake St. Screening Room in Chicago, who replies: "The most commonly used movie format nowadays is akin to letterboxing, except that there is usually more image on the film than is intended to be shown, with the final cropping done via the projector's aperture plate. Thus, if the projectionist misframes the picture, things may be shown that were not intended to be seen, not to mention wreaking general havoc with the filmmaker's composition."Some films are indeed shot with a mask in the camera, which renders the excess area black and forces the projectionist to frame it precisely lest the audience see a partly black screen. At the very least it means nothing unintended will be seen. But there are a number of valid reasons to film with an open aperture, the most important of which is that the extra height can be used during the all-important video transfer to allow full frame versions with little or no pan and scan. (The area to be shown will be adjusted from shot to shot, so even if a microphone is present in one scene, it can be avoided by zooming in.) "Mr. Huber's question has some validity. It's true that a correction can be made during the post-production process to produce masked prints from a full-frame original negative. The problem is that this usually requires an expensive and image-degrading step of optical printing, and that is overkill for a problem that is more easily solved by the projectionist setting the projector's framing knob correctly and threading the film properly."

Q. I am afraid you have been hoodwinked. The movie "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (2003) is not the documentary it purports to be; indeed it is closer to a fictionalized account of what might have happened if Chavez were truly the Robin Hood portrayed in the film. The production involved an enormous amount of manipulation of dates, hours and sequences and many gross omissions, like the fact that a top-ranking general, currently a member of Chavez's cabinet, announced to the media that the president had resigned at 4 am on April 12. You can find the partial results of a rigorous technical analysis at I agree film can be made to lie; I also agree that, after helping him get elected by giving him supportive coverage, private media in Venezuela ended up being biased against Chavez and lied outright on April 13. However what many of us here criticized now looks like white lies in comparison with "The Revolution," a movie which, in its different versions, almost manages to outdo the governments PR materials. If sophisticated opinion leaders like you can be taken in, a less informed public is, I'm afraid, buying that (Llaguno) bridge you write about. (Eva Gueron, Caracas Venezuela)

A. I received a lot of other messages also questioning the facts in the documentary. Your link will help readers make up their own minds.

Q. I just saw "Love Actually" and thought it was a very good movie. But one scene I found offensive and unnecessary--Billy Bob Thornton as the President, showing him as a disreputable womanizing bully. That scene and the press conference were totally anti-American. (Michael Leone, Port Washington, NY)

A. It was a funny scene involving a cleverly-realized fictional character inspired in equal parts by Clinton and Bush. The British Prime Minister's putdown at the press conference was fueled by his jealousy, because he also had a crush on the young woman targeted by the President. When did we get so thin-skinned that any depiction of the president short of idolatry is "anti-American?" What happened to our sense of humor?

Q. Scott Hardie's experience at Best Buy, when he could not find the widescreen version of "Matrix Reloaded," was not typical. Best Buy always carries widescreen DVDs and displays them properly. The bonus disc was available on both the widescreen and full screen editions. Most likely what happened is he went later in the day and the widescreen bonus discs were all sold out. This is a fairly frequent occurrence as widescreen DVDs just sell faster. According to the latest sales charts, this is now the case for all pretty much all movies, even stuff like "Anger Management." (Daniel Rudolph, Cedar Rapids IA)

A. I got a lot of similar messages. Apparently moviegoers now prefer widescreen to "full screen" (i.e., cropped pan-and-scan) by such a wide margin that stores are left with piles of unsold full screens. Apologies to Best Buy.

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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