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Roger Ebert Address Topic of 'Virtual Movies'

By Zareena Hussain
News Editor

Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer-prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave a talk entitled "Virtual Movies: An Oxymoron" as part of special colloquium sponsored by the Media Lab on Friday.

At times veering off the assigned topic, Ebert made remarks about everything from his thoughts about Media Lab innovations to his own theories about why we as humans surf the Internet.

Answering in part his own question about why virtual movies, just don't work, he cited HyperSoap, a Media Lab project which showcases retail merchandise in the format of a soap opera where everything is for sale. By merely pointing to a given object on the screen, the viewer learns how much it costs.

Ebert noted that this is a great way to sell products, but it also has a major problem. "It would be really distracting if I was interested in the soap opera," he said.

"My bias is to look at the movie and let myself be consumed by it," Ebert said.

Ebert attacks distractions

Ebert went on to comment how the distractions of interactive media contradict what we, as audiences, want to do when we watch movies.

"When I go to the movie and I sit down, I am acutely aware of everything around me," Ebert said. I am "extremely obsessively aware of the person in front of me," he said. "Where did they get that haircut, that hat, that head?"

But once the movie comes on, the distractions disappear, "and the movie starts and I forget everything around me because I want to have a vicarious experience," he said.

"We are trying to go back into that very receptive right-brain state," Ebert said, to feel "that we are actually in Montana, in outer-space, that we are Harrison Ford, or Cameron Diaz."

But interactive media can take away from that vicarious experience. He cited a screening he went to of the first interactive movie. Audiences were able to pick and choose outcomes. At periodic intervals, viewers could decide the choices made by the protagonist. For instance, the audience could decide, "should he jump off the cliff, turn around and shoot, or surrender?"

"In the end everyone voted for the most violent choice," Ebert said. "It was just awful. Audience members felt dissatisfied, because they wanted to see all the other choices."

And for the same reason that interactive movies bombed, so to would other attempts at hypermedia, Ebert said.

Technology reveals human nature

Beyond these attempts at innovation, high technology reveals some very basic patterns of human behavior, Ebert said.

Male domination of the TV remote control reveals natural hunting tendencies, Ebert said. By channel surfing, "the guy is killing more channels," he said.

Ebert even shared with the audience his own experiences World Wide Web surfing. "I surf that I may surf," he said.

"I am not really looking for anything. I am looking for the next thing, but only to find the next thing. We are enjoying the hunt, the mobility," Ebert said.

In the process, the instant gratification that computers and the Web offer provide a source of extreme bliss, Ebert said.

For evidence, Ebert simply points to the changed character of the city news desk with the advent of computers. "The city desk used to be a maelstrom of activity. Now, it's a bunch of data entry clerks."

Ebert went on to conjecture about how the computer is changing the way we act.

"Why do dog's always fall for the I'm pretending to throw a ball' trick? Because they've been programmed to fall for it," Ebert said. "I think computers are programming us."

"The computer acknowledges us. It rewards us. It trains us. It feeds us. It shelters us. It entertains us. And like a dog, it waits for us to come home," Ebert said.

Ebert even commented on how the proliferation of for-profit online pornography is further evidence that it is the search and not the goal that consumes us when we surf the Web.

Ebert said he had chance to visit one such Website run by the wife of a movie theater owner he once met. "Danni's Hard Drive," which featured nude pictures of women, made nearly $120,000 per month, he said.

Ebert wondered why such sites did so well. Going to any newsstand, "I could have tons of glossy large, beautiful, carefully-reproduced naked girls," Ebert said.

Ebert conjectured that the popularity of the Web pornography exists because some images can't always be seen in their entirety within the size limits of a Web browser.

"It's because it does scroll down. It's like a striptease," Ebert said.

"It's the getting of it. It's not the having of it. Once you have it, you don't even really have it anymore," Ebert said

Ebert compared man's relationship to the Web to the the short story "Shakespeare's Memory," written by Jorge Luis Borges.

In the story a man, who is an expert on Shakespeare's writings, is offered the gift of Shakespeare's memory. The only caveat is that the memories of Shakespeare comes to him in dreams. But soon, Shakespeare's memory, which is stronger than the man's, takes over.

The man begins to think in Shakespeare's English "and now Shakespeare's memory is running him,"Ebert said.

"When I think of the Web, I think of Shakespeare's Memory.' I venture through the Web of information. I am jacking into my own personality," he said. "I hope it's not changing the definition of a human."