Adventures in Modeming

Helping an author with some background info on Ernest Lehman, I ran across this article about the WGA's BBS system from October 1991. (Early days of the internet.) 

As published in “Written By” October 1991.

Ah, VHS.


It was over a year ago when I discovered the voice in my phone Modem. I was recovering from the stinging reviews of a film I had co-written and directed called Limit Up when I discovered that Gene Siskel was the resident critic for Prodigy - the Sears computer network that includes subscribers from across the country.

I thought that Siskel had been overly critical of the film in his review, and owing to the fact that he and Ebert disagreed on every other film on their show but mine, I realized he might have been giving it a "thumbswayyyy down" in the excitement of being able to agree with Ebert on anything.
Dean Stockwell, Nancy Allen
But I was able to tell him so in front of a national audience. I posted a letter to him on the Prodigy service using my computer and phone modem, telling him what I thought of his review, and specifically what I thought he had missed in the story. And at computer terminals all across America, subscribers signed on co find the writer/director of a film publicly proclaiming that a reviewer was wrong and it was up to the audience to make up their own minds.

Siskel posted a reply that he hoped he would appreciate the next movie I make more, and explained that he wasn't paid to root for films, only to critique them. But nonetheless, what I felt had been a mean spirited attack on a friendly spirited film had been countered by the film's parent.
Ray Charles, Danitra Vance
Finally a film critic could be criticized in public for his critique. After that, Gene Siskel didn't app ear on the Prodigy service for a couple of weeks; perhaps he had a vacation coming to him. I prefer to think that he took time off to cool his hot toes.

Not much later I signed up for the MCI mail system so I could file my occasional music reviews that I was writing for Variety (which I approach with trepidation and over conscientiousness), and in perusing the MCI system I found Roger Ebert's mailbox.

Ray is God. Nancy is a Soybean Trader.

I sent him a copy of the rave Limit Up re¬ceived from Entertainment Today, rating it a B+, and asked him to consider giving the film a second viewing for his next foray into compiling movie reviews. He replied that he felt he had bent over backwards to give the film a fair review, I said that I thought calling it 'dumb, dumb, dumb' hardly constituted bending over backwards. He eventually told me that he, too, was stung by the reviews of his book about Cannes from his own newspaper.

I was happy to be able to discuss it. Usually the artist is skewered, his work ridiculed, his fortunes dashed - perhaps justifiably so, perhaps because the reviewer wasn't in the mood for that type of film on that given day - without any recourse but an angry letter to an editor or a pithy telegram.
One of our movie posters

I'll leave the values of honesty in reviewing to an in-depth study of criticism in general, I was just happy to find a voice through my computer, enabling me to have a dialogue with those who review my work.

But there are other voices to be found in my phone modem. Recently I was auditing a writing class at USC, when the subject of act breaks came up regarding the film North By Northwest. The teacher handed out an outline of where he considered the act breaks to occur, and I didn't agree with him about the end of the first act.

So when I got home to my computer I dialed up the Writers Guild BBS and left a note to Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of North By Northwest. What ensued was a series of letters and an on-line discussion of what constitutes an act break and whether these rules apply to his film, as well as some great stories about what it was like to work with Hitchcock and Grant. (About the first act, Ernie happened to agree with me, and I was able to report back to the class, a la Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan out of a ticket line to refute a point in Annie Hall; I was able to find the voice of irrefut¬able proof inside of my modem.)

The realm of communication that was first dominated by long distance runners, then handwritten wax sealed envelopes, Western Union telegrams, and eventually faxes, now has a faster, farther-reaching, and more convenient carrier.
Ernie and Hitch

The modem has provided a way to have a long distance conversation- or at least an exchange of letters in a short amount of time - so anyone with a phone modem, computer and an ounce of determination can participate. And perhaps all parties can come away with a better understanding of each other's point of view. It may be just a matter of time before they launch a United Nations BBS so world leaders can chat each other up from time to time, and find out exactly who meant what, when, and why they said it.

Richard Martini wrote an directed “You Can't Hurry Love,” and co­wrote (with Lu Anders) and directed “Limit Up.” His modem resides in Santa Monica.

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