Ten Years of Presence: In Honor of Roger Ebert and the Empathy Machine | Features

“Cloud Atlas”

One of the things I admired most about Roger was that, while he often had his biases around genre (and medium, as his takes on video games can attest), the right film could hit him in a magical, undeniable way. And so it went with Roger’s review of one of the 21st century’s most empathetic movies from Hollywood’s most empathetic filmmakers, the Wachowskis: “Cloud Atlas.” In spanning centuries and worlds and selves, the film is a three-hour opus about how, as Roger put it in his review, “all lives are connected by a thirst for freedom.” Consequently, his review is less about the film itself than the experience of watching it, absorbing it—of letting a piece of art dig its way under your skin and illuminate new things about you. Rather than describe, Roger converses, constantly negotiating with the reader how much to reveal, chronicling his own journey from analytical overwhelm to the kind of intellectual freedom the film’s characters spend so much time seeking: “On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters. What was important was that I set my mind free to play.” More than awakening a viewer to empathize with a specific person, group of people, or issue, his review of “Cloud Atlas” shows him wrestling with his own understanding of the work, and what he wants to say about all of us. It’s a movie about caring, reviewed by a man who cared about that movie in return, and wanted to share that care with those who trusted his counsel. –Clint Worthington

“Breaking the Waves”

Empathy is easy if you already agree with the actions of another, while the feeling borders on the impossible if you think another’s actions are truly reprehensible. It’s far easier to boycott things you were already avoiding, or to accept censorship for that which you find offensive. To try and inhabit the humanity of someone that’s so far outside your own experience is the very mandate of being truly empathetic, pushing oneself to bend to the point of breaking in order to try and understand each decision they make or belief they hold because it is their truth, no matter how far it is from your own set of beliefs. I can’t think of a more stunning exemplar for the challenges and rewards of emphasizing, a film where we witness the catastrophic collision between madness and faith, than Lars Von Trier’s 1996 masterpiece “Breaking the Waves.” As Roger wrote, this is an “emotionally and spiritually challenging” work, “hammering at conventional morality,” for “here we have a story that forces us to take sides, to ask what really is right and wrong in a universe that seems harsh and indifferent.” We are never indifferent to Bess’ situation, yet with the final peal even our own faith about the certainty of our responses is upended. This is not a journey on calm waters—as Roger suggests, we are “forced” to confront our expectations—and what better test of empathy is there than to be open to being offended, and then questioning our own discomfort, dismay, or disgust ? At their best films can uniquely push boundaries of taste and truth for reasons as holy as any other mythmaking. When such emotional and narrative works result in an accomplishment as rich as Von Trier’s masterpiece, we as audiences are left forever changed long after the bells have rung. –Jason Gorber


I considered the concept of film as an empathy machine as I was shaken again by another school shooting. This time it was in Nashville, but it will be somewhere else next week and somewhere else the week after that, and I feel helpless to protect not only my children but the thousands of people impacted by gun violence every day. It got me thinking about the little empathy people have that value profit over protection and I realized that when I struggle emotionally with an issue, I often think about how Roger would have responded. People commonly ask me if I think Roger would have liked a movie that came out since he passed. I wonder too. But I think I miss even more the way he unapologetically used his platform to comment not only on art but the world from which it emerges. I wonder what Roger would have written about climate change in the last decade, about the political divides in this country, and about school shootings, among so many other issues. And that consideration brought me to “Elephant,” a phenomenal piece of writing about the intersection of artist and subject matter. In the review, he says, “Hollywood is in the catharsis business,” noting how Van Sant challenges that by giving no easy answers. It got me thinking that maybe we could use more films like Van Sant’s that hold a mirror up to reality without tidy resolutions. Empathy is often mistaken for a product of only uplifting stories, tales of overcoming adversity—the “catharsis business.” But it’s just as important that the machine shows us the dark side of humanity too. Roger writes, “Van Sant sidesteps all the conventional modes of movie behavior and simply shows us sad, sudden death without purpose.” Purposeless violence is an increasingly common reality, and it’s a testament to Van Sant’s art and Roger’s analysis of it that they both still speak to me in a time of emotional crisis two decades later. –Brian Tallerico