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The longest dialogue, and counting

Q. I read your review of "The Longest Yard" very closely. While I found your thoughts stimulating and the evocation of your inner dilemma particularly provocative, I believe that you remain foolishly guarded and even a bit naive about your ultimate decision to award three stars to this clump of junk. Out of empathy for your plight of conscience, I had decided to let this matter rest. However, after reading the coverage of this review in the New York Times, I must respond.

Joseph Morgenstern -- another award-winning film reviewer -- once famously changed his mind after penning and publishing a strongly negative piece about "Bonnie and Clyde." Within a week, he wrote and published another review, a rave, and wryly acknowledged his honest embarrassment about his earlier, shortsighted opinion. Your article is in some ways more sensitively written and reflective than Morgenstern's '67 "second take" review. But this stars business is, I think, a real problem.

When a critic or paper bestows an upturned thumb or a coveted set of stars on a picture, that distinction follows the film throughout its existence. When you're gone, and someone compiles a list of "Roger Ebert's three-star Movies," this piece of cheese will be right alongside (for example) "The Godfather, Part II," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "Masculine-Feminine," "The Spider's Stratagem," "Play It Again, Sam" and "Vixen." There won't be any mention of your honest crisis of conscience over this. Just the stars. You should have simply left the star field blank on this one.

D.F. Rutgers, New York City

A. My review of "The Longest Yard" has generated more feedback than anything I've written since "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." I was trying to do something rather complex in the review, and it was surprisingly well-received by many readers and hated by others. I was trying to balance on the cutting edge between conceding that a movie "works" and knowing that life is short and one should ideally be making a better choice.

The readers who didn't like the review were upset that I tried to develop these two ideas in my review at the same time, instead of just settling for one or the other. But we go to different movies for different reasons on different occasions, and I saw "The Longest Yard" in one mood and reviewed it in another.

Those who consult only the stars have only themselves to blame. If stars were all that mattered, why would I go to the trouble of writing a review? Nor need stars be immutable. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is now in my Great Movies series, and "The Godfather, Part II" is headed there. That is a de facto upgrading to four stars.

Attentive reading of "The Longest Yard" review, especially its final sentence, will show that persisting with three stars was my way of punishing myself. Not everyone appreciated this attempt at irony, but I must say I enormously enjoyed writing that review. To cravenly cave in would not have been nearly as much fun.

Q. In light of the success of "Crash" and the continuing strong word-of-mouth by moviegoers, do you think that the movie would have become a major blockbuster if it had been released in more theaters?

I noticed that it was released in approximately 1,200 fewer theaters than other movies in general release. I'm very happy for the film's success, but I wonder if Lions Gate Films underestimated the film's potential success.

Gary M. James, Rochester, N.Y.

A. Actually, Lions Gate's key decision was to release it in so many theaters; originally it was set to open in New York and Los Angeles only. For a serious film, it had an unusually wide release, and you're correct that strong word of mouth is propelling it above expectations.

Q. I wept after reading your Great Movie review of "Woodstock." This is the best explanation yet for me give to my son to express my feelings about the '60s. The movie will always be an emotional experience as well as a time capsule for me. When the movie opened in Atlanta, my future husband and I went to see it at a small independent theater. It was our first date. We both wore bell bottoms. He wore a paisley shirt. I did not wear a bra.

I don't think there is a more beautiful time in my life. Hope for the world was beautiful, innocence was beautiful, his golden blond hair was beautiful, my golden brown, long, straight hair was beautiful, our ideals were beautiful, and the music was beautiful. "Do the tears on my pillow bespeak the pain in my heart?"

Lynn Griffeth, Atlanta

A. I didn't weep at my review, but your letter kinda got to me.

Q. Since you have mentioned the phrase in your columns from Cannes, I feel obligated to point out to you that "Un Certain Regard" does not at all mean "a certain regard," since the French "regard" is a look, a gaze or, in this occurrence, a way of looking at something. The further fact that the French "certain" has a different meaning according to whether it is placed before or after the noun makes the phrase very challenging to translate, but I venture that "A Particular Outlook" would not be entirely unsuitable.

Charles-Antoine Allain, Quebec

A. For some reason, your letter reminds me of the night in 1972 when Groucho Marx was given a French decoration at Cannes. The festival president, Gilles Jacob, called a translator onstage, but Groucho waved her away, explaining, "I speak perfect French." Jacob proceeded to read a proclamation honoring Groucho and put a ribbon around his neck. Then Groucho said to Jacob: "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?"

Q. I know that you are reluctant to discuss and/or acknowledge lists that dare to promulgate "the" greatest films of all time, but I believe that Time's list of the 100 greatest films is fun, open to debate and, in the least, composed of many films that have been declared Great Movies by you.

What is your opinion of Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel's picks? Still have reservations about the merit of commentary on such a list? I call your attention to Schickel's logical justification for said lists: "100 lists are fun to discuss, fun to argue over. I don't think anybody should say, 'That's it, that's the final 100! No disputing this for the rest of eternity!' You know, stuff changes. Life changes. You change."

Terry Fedigan, Auburn, N.Y.

A. Lists of the greatest anything are, in general, the result of assignments by idea-challenged editors. If I had to list the greatest 100 films in order from 1 to 100, how, oh how, would I decide between No. 63 and No. 64? That's why my Great Movies series deliberately refuses to rank the films. Corliss and Schickel are friends of mine and I respect them as critics. I approve of their decision to list their films alphabetically.

I note than 54 of their titles are on my GM list, and others are destined to be -- for example Jean-Claude Lauzon's "Leolo," an overlooked masterpiece by a director who died too young, at 44, in a plane crash. The real usefulness of a list like theirs, or a book like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, is that it provides good ideas for DVD rentals. I have, by the way, seen 943 of the 1001 movies, and am carefully rationing the remaining titles to prolong my life.

Q. In your review of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," you mentioned that the Greece segments of the film looked like a tourism ad, and that surely there was nowhere in Greece this great. Well, I worked on the film, and was lucky enough to spend a month in Greece last May when we filmed in Santorini. However beautiful the movie made Greece look, it DOES look that gorgeous, the people ARE that friendly, the food is amazing, and the beaches and town of Oia are to die for. Just thought you would want to know.

Anne Wilson, Wilmington, N.C.

A. Who do I ask for?

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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