Roger Ebert,

Roger Ebert,

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 9 1998 3:30 AM

Roger Ebert,

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       The Conference on World Affairs was holding a program at the local high school, and Mary-Ellis Bunim and I were the panelists. What is this? The students of Boulder High are orderly, attentive, and intelligent? I'd seen too many news reports about modern American high schools and was surprised to find no metal detectors at the doors, no armed security guards roaming the aisles, just nice kids at a school assembly.
       Mary-Ellis Bunim talked about her daily MTV soaps, The Real World and Road Rules: how they got started, how they cast the shows with real kids and were in fact casting in Boulder even as we spoke. The students lined up at microphones and asked us if we didn't think the ceaseless violence on television was slopping over into American life, and if the news wasn't too sensationalized, and if we agreed that Jerry Springer and his clones are degrading the quality of our civilization. I felt I should apologize for the world we had prepared for them.
       On my way to my next panel, titled "What Is a Classic?" I meditated on an e-mail message I received last night from my wife, Chaz, who isn't attending this year. She read my first two Slate diary entries and wrote: "You mention all the weird and bizarre subjects you have participated in at the Conference, and no doubt your retell makes for interesting stories. But at some point I hope you point out the more serious topics as well. I remember topics like censorship, sexual harassment, and the Constitution. From reading your description of the conference, people would think you spent all your time debating masturbation with witches."
       In my defense I must say there is usually a witch at the conference, although she could not attend this year. Margot Adler, the NPR correspondent, who has become a friend over the years, is not a witch so much as an expert on female priesthoods and druids and goddesses and drawing down the moon and such, although I am sure Chaz is right and I would have worked Margot into a sensationalized anecdote. Like Pepys, I thank the almighty for my sane and calming wife.
       "What Is a Classic?" was a panel at which we agreed that in modern America, hardly anyone knows and fewer care. Wendell Harris, emeritus professor of English from Penn State, observed sadly that we do not have a generally shared American culture. Sayre Sheldon of Boston University, president of Women's Action for New Directions, read the titles on the current New York Times fiction list and asked who thought each title would be remembered as a classic. Toni Morrison did well. Robert Parker didn't do badly. Jingalu, a 25-year-old aboriginal artist from Australia with wonderful curls spilling down her back, wondered if traditions such as the aboriginal initiations into manhood and womanhood could be called classics. We thought perhaps they could, since they're an art form passed down through the generations as bearers of style and values. Paul Kolsby, the playwright and actor, read a list of things that are classics and turned it into a comic performance. I said I didn't want to know anyone who didn't know who Dr. Johnson was. Accused by an audience member of being an exclusivist snob, I amended: I didn't want to know anyone who was not at least willing to know who Dr. Johnson was.
       Then to Macky Auditorium for Cinema Interruptus. We will take eight hours to go through Dark City using a stop-action laserdisc player. Many of those who saw the movie yesterday agreed with me that it is a visionary achievement. I predicted that, like Blade Runner, it will pass directly from box office disappointment to cultural touchstone, without passing through the intermediate stages of success.
       We started looking at the film. Ninety minutes later we had made our way through only six minutes. Not in 25 years of Cinema Interruptus at Boulder has a film inspired such intense scrutiny. We froze frames to speculate about special effects, matte shots, models. We wondered if the round window in the black space in the hotel wall was intended to mirror the leather headbands with holes in their centers that were used by the Strangers to guide their injections of fresh memories. A woman seated near the front offered a complex theory involving the Third Eye. We looked again and again at the skillful editing of a brief scene in which a knife is knocked from a table and spins to the floor.
       Afterward, Andy Ihnatko and I went looking for the Tuesday night buffet dinner. Andy, the Macintosh expert, bills himself as the 47th most beloved figure in the computer industry. A storm dropped a screen of thick, wet snow. We couldn't find the University Club. We couldn't even see the two high-rise dorms it was allegedly behind. We went instead to Video Station, and I bought a DVD of Amarcord. The guy told me DVDs are "growing exponentially." We ate at the Mongolian Stir-Fry House. We were the only customers. We talked about how Apple should have sold the eMate to newspapers to replace the obsolete Tandy 100. The red-hot Mongolian sauce in the curious little bottle sent a convincing warmth to every corner of my body.

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