Roger Ebert,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 11 1998 3:30 AM

Roger Ebert,

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       I say goodbye to Studs Terkel at the curb in front of the Hotel Boulderado as he's picked up for his drive to Denver Airport. He remembers the names of the students assigned to drive him around town, the "Indian kid" and the "Japanese kid." He mentions Sven Steinmo, the director of the Conference on World Affairs--"the Norwegian." The ethnic tags are praise: He is delighted that everyone is from somewhere, is something. It's like he's assembling a human bouquet.
       My morning panel is titled "American Graffiti: 50 Years of Social Pathology." I assume the topic refers to television, but San Francisco publisher Tom Adams launches an attack on fundamentalist religions, Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation describes how he began as an atheist but became a Quaker, and former Portland, Ore., police chief Tom Potter talks about the way we pour money into the ends of doomed lives (as prison costs) rather than into the beginning, when it might do some good.
       It's too late for the free lunch, so I drive over to the Creative Cafe ("famous for our barbecued tofu"), where everyone seems to be reading Natural Health magazine while they eat. Then down the street to the Red Letter Bookstore, where I find two volumes of Shaw essays and a novel by Bemelmans. Then to Macky Auditorium for the fourth session of Cinema Interruptus.
       We get into real trouble. At the end of today's session, after four days, we're only through the first 45 minutes of Dark City and have only tomorrow to finish the film. I admire the movie immensely, which is why I selected it for the shot-by-shot treatment, but am amazed at how rich it is. Every shot reveals a nuance. Theories rain from the audience. We agree the film is beautiful; it reminds everyone of Edward Hopper and, I think, of the Glasgow painter Jack Vettriano.
       The party tonight is at Jane and Charlie Butcher's rambling house up in the foothills. All the conferees eat salmon and talk rapidly and earnestly. Two days after the snowstorm, we're standing outside around the pool.
       I am introduced to a tall, serious 11-year-old girl named Emily Rosa. The name rings a bell. When she was 9, she devised an experiment to test whether therapeutic healers could actually sense the presence of hands on the other side of a cardboard blind; she became the youngest person to have a report published in a scientific journal. She's here with her mom, Linda Rosa, and her stepdad, Larry Sarner. "We're meeting Wally somebody," she says, "my parents' friend. We were gonna take him out to dinner but he was here, and here we are."
       I ask about her experiment. "I needed a subject for my test," she says, with the absolute pragmatism of the young. I ask if she thinks healers can sense human auras. "Naw, 'cause my test shows that the results were what you expect from somebody just guessing."
       She apologizes for her fingernails: "One of my hobbies is oil painting, and it's hard to scrub the colors off." She does "landscapes, portraits, modern art." I ask her what she likes in the vast Butcher living room. She likes a painting over the fireplace and "that one of a girl over there."
       She says she might want to be a veterinarian. Does she have any animals? "Two cats, a tarantula, two dogs, and two birds. The tarantula--I've had her since kindergarten." Is she dangerous? "She's a good tarantula. She stays in her cage and eats crickets."
       "Did you see the movie Contact?" I ask her.
       "I loved it," she says.
       "The woman over there," I say, "was the original inspiration for the Jodie Foster character, the radio astronomer who is listening for intelligent signals from outer space. Would you like to meet her?"
       "Cool!"
       I introduce Emily to Jill C. Tarter, director of Project Phoenix of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. Tarter wears rimless glasses and has her hair in a bun and reminds me of those women in the movies where Cary Grant was always taking off their glasses and pulling out their hairpins.
       "How did you come up with your methodology?" she asks Emily.
       "I had them stick their hands through the barrier and tell me if they could sense my hands."
       "Was there a control, to guard against the placebo effect? Did you sometimes not put your hands out at all?"
       I step back and watch. The two women put their heads closer together, and their intensity deepens. Two scientists. One is 11, but that doesn't seem to matter to either one of them.

Roger Ebert is film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of the television program Siskel & Ebert.

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