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Movie Answer Man (12/29/1996)

Q. I thought "The English Patient" it was a great film, but something about the central romance really bugs me. By coincidence, I'd seen "Casablanca" at a revival house just the night before. In that film, Bogart gives up the woman he loves for the higher purpose of defeating the Nazis. In "The English Patient," the Ralph Fiennes character deals with the Nazis in order to get back to the woman he loves. Some of my women friends are captivated that Fiennes's character subordinates everything to his passion for this woman; that includes her husband and the fate of the free world, to name two. Am I a wet blanket to be totally turned off by this? Are some women actually leaving the theater wondering "Would my man sell out the world to the fascists to be with me?" (John Miller, 73407,2032)

A. My guess is that few viewers of the film think it through in the way you have. Yes, the Fiennes character betrays the Allies and provides maps to the Nazis because of the woman he loves. Perhaps he was inspired by the decision a few years earlier by the Duke of Windsor, who also put a woman above a kingdom, his responsibility, and his heritage. Your questions are precisely the ones, I think, that bother Caravaggio, the Willem Dafoe character, although he keeps his thoughts to himself for a long time, primarily for the convenience of the screenplay.

Q. While watching "Star Trek: First Contact" we noticed something strange. After Picard jumps from one level of the ship to the next level down, several crew members follow him through the hole. Although the shot is framed primarily on him, the audience sees the crew members come through the hole behind Picard. For some reason, the lens distorts the length of their bodies, making them appear unnaturally long when they come through the hole (specifically their legs). This phenomenon made their jump seem to take an unusually long time. (Mark Edlitz and Jerry Kolber, New York)

A. The Answer Man's expert on Star Wars/Trek questions is Andy Ihnatko of Westwood, Mass., who replies: "It's simple. Starfleet uniforms are solid black from shoes to upper chest. As far as I could tell, the crewman climbed down through the ceiling and then hung on the edge for a moment before dropping down. Because his feet had already been obscured by foreground actors and his top hadn't entered the frame yet, I think the viewer 'read' that solid black shape as continuing to drop down when in fact it wasn't moving at all."

Q. Any suggestions on how those of us in small markets can lobby our local theaters to book the long version of "Hamlet" rather than the short version? If the multiplex insists on booking the short version, do you think they would let a local art-house simultaneously book the long version? (Ed Slota, Warwick, R.I.)

A. Good news. Producer-director-star Kenneth Branagh tells me that after the longer version was screened for exhibitors, they decided that was the one they wanted to see. There are no plans at the present to show the shorter version at all.

Q. In your review of "The Preacher's Wife" you state: "Surely the makers of this film do not believe that humans go to heaven and become angels. As we all know, angels were created by God as his first companions, and he created humans much later..." Perhaps you meant this comment ironically. I do not think Hollywood filmmakers take their theology from catechisms, serious theological works, or (God forbid) the Bible. Rather I presume their view of God, angels, the afterlife, etc. comes mostly from other movies, and television. The defining example for most filmmakers is, I suppose, "It's a Wonderful Life," where Clarence (who has yet to earn his wings) is identified as a clock maker who had died 200 years before. (Alan K. Scholes, Crestline, CA.)

A. As I pointed out in a recent article on this very question, it is universally agreed among those religions that believe in them that angels have no sexual feelings, no bodies, no gender, and can love only God. They are NOT former humans who have returned from heaven for a visit from earth. Angels like Clarence, John Travolta's "Michael" and the Denzel Washington character in "The Preacher's Wife" represent just plain sloppy theology from Hollywood.

Q. I live in Chicago, one of the best film markets in the world. "Breaking the Waves" played at a specialized art cinema for two weeks. It is gone already. The movie has not played in more than 20 cities in this country, probably never at more than one screen per city. What is unfortunate is that many of the best movies of 1996 have been inaccessible to much of the country. For people living in smaller markets or who aren't in the habit of visiting art cinemas, the only way to see good independent films is to wait for home video. (Daniel M. Conley, Chicago)

A. This is an ancient problem. Drunk with greed for blockbuster opening-night grosses, Hollywood is alienating its older and more thoughtful audiences by pumping out teenage shock-o-ramas that open strong. Movies that take time to find and build an audience are dumped. Local exhibitors take the time to evaluate movies and match them with audiences; national chains are booked by computer jockeys whose taste in movies is overruled by the bottom lines on their spreadsheets. As a result, most of the annual "best ten" lists are heavier than usual with independent films this year, because mainstream Hollywood has tilted decisively toward brainless formula action pictures.

Q. "Evita" lists its screenwriters as Alan Parker and Oliver Stone. I find it interesting that lyricist Tim Rice is not credited as a screenwriter (although he does, of course, get the "lyrics by" credit). Since "Evita" is a sung-through musical, doesn't this mean that the author of all of the film's dialog is not credited as a screenwriter? In the past, have sung-through movies typically credited the lyricist as one of the film's writers, or is this standard procedure? (Jeffrey Graebner, Los Angeles)

A. Interesting question. "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) is another of the rare films that is sung all the way through. Director Jacques Demy gives himself a solo credit for the screenplay, and a different solo credit for the lyrics, indicating he thinks they are two different things.

Q. I read that Steven Spielberg bought Clark Gable's "Gone With the Wind" Oscar for $550,000, and then donated it to the Motion Picture Academy. He did this to make a statement against the practice of selling Oscars, which is against Academy by-laws. What is your take on his action? (Baxter Wolfe, Arlington Heights)

A. It was a fine and noble gesture, although by setting a new market record for famous Oscars, Spielberg may have inspired deep thoughts on the parts of other Oscar owners, who may be wondering if they would rather have the statuette, or the money. One thing's for sure: Now that we know what an Oscar can be worth, stars are going to stop leaving them around as paperweights and doorstops.

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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