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Excerpt From 'Life Itself: A Memoir'

'There is no sense of audience' when watching movies in this day and age

Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in My Dinner with Andre, or the first thirty minutes of White Men Can't Jump.

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Home video is both the best and the worst thing that has happened on the movie beat since I've been a critic. It is good because it allows us to see the movies we want to see, when we want to see them. It provides an economic incentive for the prints of old movies to be preserved and restored. It brings good movies to people seeking them. Viewing via video has destroyed the campus film societies, which were like little shrines to the cinema. If the film society was showing Kurosawa's Ikiru for a dollar and there was nothing else playing except the new releases at first-run prices, you went to Ikiru and then it was forever inside of you, a great film.

Today, students rent videos, stream them, or watch them on TV, and even if they watch a great movie, they do it alone or with a few friends. There is no sense of audience, and yet an important factor in learning to be literate about movies is to be part of an audience that is sophisticated about them. On the other hand, today every medium-sized city has a film festival, where if you are lucky you will see a wonderful film you never heard of before. And a lot of museums have excellent film centers.

What I miss, though, is the wonder. People my age [Ebert is 69] can remember walking into a movie palace where the ceiling was far overhead, and balconies and mezzanines reached away into the shadows. We remember the sound of a thousand people laughing all at once. And screens the size of billboards, so every seat in the house was a good seat. "I lost it at the movies," [longtime film critic for The New Yorker] Pauline Kael said, and we all knew just what she meant.

When you go to the movies every day, it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them. Then you see something absolutely miraculous, and on your way out you look distracted, as if you had just experienced some kind of a vision.

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Life Itself: A Memoir, © 2011 by Roger Ebert, is published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, New York, New York. Used by permission of the publisher.