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Movie Answer Man (12/19/1999)

Q. In Bob Zmuda's new book about Andy Kaufman, he mentions how he worked for a famous screen writer, whom he would only call "Mr. X.". He tells us of the wildly eccentric things Mr. X would do and how the tales he would tell led to his and Andy's collaboration, and how these stories led to Andy's form of "comedy." Do you know who this bizarre screen writer is? With Jim Carrey playing Kaufman in "Man on the Moon" soon to be released, it might help give an insight on what drove Andy to his particular brand of humor. (Scott Boudet, Tallahassee Fl)

A. I referred your question to Bill Zehme, author of the just-published Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. He replies: "Before he came into Andy's life (May 1974, a full year later than claimed), Zmuda worked odd jobs for the renegade screenwriter Norman Wexler ("Serpico," "Joe," "Saturday Night Fever") who died this year. Wexler, as I point out in my book, was a legendary kook "whose supposed eccentric furies and quixotic adventures had makings of further inspiration for [Kaufman's fictional lounge lizard character] Tony Clifton." Andy's creation of Clifton pre-dated Zmuda, but Zmuda's stories about Wexler's sociopathic and oblivious behavior certainly thrilled Andy. Clifton's abrasive demeanor was largely based on that of comedian Richard Belzer, well-known for heckling an audience before it had a chance to heckle him."

Q. Why did Arnold go through all that trouble to keep the Devil from impregnating Robin Tunney in "End Of Days" when all he had to do was impregnate her first? Now that would be a movie. (Patrick Franklin, Norman OK)

A. It would also be the world's greatest pickup line: "Quick--let me impregnate you before the Devil does!"

Q. There was a big stink a couple of years ago about killer popcorn in the nation's theaters. Apparently one bag had more saturated fat than a zillion Quarter Pounders. Then there was publicity about how theaters were switching to healthier recipes. Is the popcorn now safe to eat? (Susan Lake, Urbana, IL)

A. There has been much backsliding at the popcorn counter. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells me: "It's turning out that the trans fat in the hydrogenated shortening in which many theaters pop their popcorn is extremely conducive to heart disease --probably substantially worse than butter." The original CSPI study showed that a large bag of theater popcorn contains 80 grams of fat, 53 of them saturated. That's for popcorn, without any topping. On the McDonald's scale, it works out to six Big Macs. Unless a theater advertises that it uses a healthy oil like canola, I think it's prudent to avoid popcorn unless you don't care how the movie ends.

Q. Now that it supplies roughly five percent of all the dialog in R-rated movies, can you tell me when the f-word was first heard from the screen? (Ronnie Barzell, Los Angeles)

A. The last time a reader asked that, neither the MPAA Code and Ratings Administration nor the Motion Picture Academy was able to supply the answer. Now we know. According to The F-Word, a new British reference edited by Jesse Sheidlower, the first movie to utter the word was Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H," released on January 25, 1970. Second place: Michael Sarne's "Myra Breckenridge," from June 1970. Both were rated R.

Q. During a screening of "The Seven Samurai" on Turner Classic Movies, every now and then, one of the words in the subtitles was blocked out by a grey box. Why was it there, and what was it blocking? (Evan Talbott, Baltimore)

A. A TCM spokesperson acknowledges this has happened in the past, but TCM'S current policy is to air films as they were originally intended to be seen in theatrical release. In many cases the bleeping and blocking was in the films when TCM obtained them; "now we go back to the original source to be sure they show the films as they've been seen in the theatres."

Q. I saw "Princess Mononoke" twice, and thought of its director, Hayao Miyazaki, as the perfect choice for Harry Potter--in part because of the great, naturalistic way he treats magic, and for his love of flying, which there is a lot of in the Potter books. And I thought of his movie about the 13-year-old witch, Kiki. It would be great if Harry ran into her as an exchange student at Hogwart's. (Jim Ferer, Cos Cob, Conn.)

A. The rights to the Potter books have been purchased by Steven Spielberg, although it is difficult to imagine a live-action version of their magic, and Miyazaki's twinkling approach to animation could provide just the right enchanted spin. Spielberg has produced a lot of animation ("An American Tail," etc) and might consider your suggestion.

Q. I recently saw "Toy Story 2" with my kids. Think of the toys as symbols for parents. In the early years of childhood, we are everything to children, and they go nowhere without us. As they get older, we become less important in their everyday life. As parents, we know that will happen, but like Woody observes at the end of the movie, we wouldn't miss a single day of that period of a child's life. Were the filmmakers thinking along the same line, or am I an overly sentimental, self-absorbed parent? (Mark Waring, Omaha NB)

A. You may have put your finger on the curious strength of the film's appeal to adults.

Q. What is the definition of a "cult movie?" (Alexei Tolkachev, Irvine CA)

A. A movie my friends and I love even though the world says we're crazy.

Q. What's with trailers these days? According to what I read, "Flawless" is about a man suffering from a stroke and becoming a better person through speech lessons with a transvestite. And "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a dark film about a man who murders a friend to take his place. Those sound like two films I would like to see. But the trailers present them as, respectively, a wacky action film and a sex-drenched comedy similar to "Cruel Intentions." Don't movie companies want people who actually appreciate film to come see their movies? (Terrence Newton, Victoria BC)

A. They figure they get them anyway. Marketing people want ALL movies to be wacky action, sex-drenched comedy, or both. So they advertise them that way. Robert De Niro made "Flawless" so he could play a character whose speech was affected by a stroke, but the studio publicity department has not allowed you to hear him saying one single word.

Q. If the machines in "The Matrix" were so smart, why didn't they use docile cows as their energy source instead of feisty humans? Not only would they have substantially reduced the risk of mutiny, but the upkeep on the Matrix would have been practically nil. An endless field of grass ought to do it for a cow. Granted, they have the box-office draw of Keanu Reeves and that babe in black leather. (A. L. McLean, Chicago)

A. I don't follow your reasoning. Doesn't Elsie wear black leather?

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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