Today's moviegoers are much less curious, adventurous and informed than they used to be, according to film critic Roger Ebert, who spoke last week to a full crowd at Block Museum of Art.
The seats were full, and people lined the back of the theatre to listen to Ebert talk about his career as a film critic, his thoughts on this year's Oscar winners and the general direction of the film industry. After the talk, the audience watched Crash, this year's winner for best picture. Both events were sponsored by Block Cinema.
Ebert blamed the decline of good movies on the apathy of the American public combined with Hollywood's only occasional release of “difficult” films.
“People today are willing to go to a movie they expect to be bad, but they are afraid to see something they think will be good,” he said.
Reminiscing about the movie generation he grew up with in the 1960s, Ebert talked about the days when college campuses were filled with film societies. Although he never took a film course, Ebert said he always focused on academics, with the newspaper on the side.
“My career plan was to be a graduate student of English for the rest of my life,” he said. “I just wanted to go to classes year after year with books under my arm and talk about them.”
When the Chicago Sun-Times offered him a job, Ebert left his graduate work and began his reign as famous film critic and, later, television show host.
The extent of his influence as a film critic today came under fire earlier this year when he wrote that Crash would win the best film Oscar over Brokeback Mountain. He was accused of “giving license to homophobia” and some blamed him for Brokeback Mountain's failure to win the best picture award, he recalled. But Ebert dismissed those claims, noting the importance of the Editor's Guild award in predicting Oscar wins.
Ebert praised Crash for the way it addressed the consideration of racism in America and how we go about life in a multi-cultural society.
“One of the most powerful empathy machines devised by man, one of the most powerful art forms, is the film,” he said. “Because when a film is really working it takes you out of yourself and you can identify in some way with the people on the screen…that empathetic experience, I think, can make you a better person.”
Looking to the future of the film industry, Ebert said that audiences will continue to get good films because of the independent filmmakers who use their own small budgets to create quality movies.