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

“Movies indeed are empathy machines, but they’re also therapy. As much as they open our minds to new experiences, sometimes we need their help to restore us, to tap into those places we’re otherwise not ready to go.” -Valerie Kalfrin (Contributor)

“In his stories about people who live far away, you recognize, in one way or another, everyone you know.” -Roger Ebert's last sentence of his review of Yasujiro' Ozu's "Floating Weeds," selected by Wael Khairy (Far Flung Correspondent)


It's hard to believe that it's been ten years since Roger Ebert left us, but his legacy shines bright and his impact can still be felt in not just criticism but the art form he loved. Roger famously thought that film was an "empathy machine," a way to step into someone else's shoes or experience a perspective that the real world could never allow. We asked our contributors to pick a review or film that came to mind when they heard those words to reveal not only how right Roger was about the power of moviemaking but how his influence continues to thrive on this site and elsewhere every time that someone writes or reads about a movie. We have also republished most of these reviews today and you can link directly to them via the titles below. Enjoy. We miss you, Roger. And you are still with us every day.

"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 it 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 certitude 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 travails 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

"Elephant"

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 defies 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

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

A review of Roger's that I think highlights not only a film's empathetic core but also the empathetic nature of his writing would be his review for "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." As he acknowledges in the review, some older critics (who he refers to as "previous adults") snarkily wrote the film off as inconsequential teen fodder. But it's clear from his glowing review that he not only takes teen-oriented media seriously but found solace of his own in the film's empathetic message about embracing your status as an outsider and learning to love your own eccentricities. He opens the review with, "All of my previous selves still survive somewhere inside of me, and my previous adolescent would have loved "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." I think that's a beautiful summation not only of how the film is able to find and draw out the viewers' inner adolescence, but also a testament to Roger's capacity for writing that so yet effectively captured what makes a film wonderful. -Lauren Coates

"Schindler's List"

The highly anticipated Martin Scorsese film "Killers of the Flower Moon," centering on the Osage Nation Reign of Terror in 1920s Oklahoma, which will be released October 6, accentuates the murder and corruption of people with Osage heritage. Empathy comes to mind as the film's source material, a bestselling book of the same name, tells of people who stepped up, risking their lives to help. How would Roger Ebert frame his review if he were still with us? In comparison, we have indications as Roger's review of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," in 1993, speaks of a hero Oskar Schindler who risked his life to save over 1,000 Jewish people from death by hiding them in his factories. Empathy appears in how much compassion and understanding we give to one another; Roger's second review of the film, written in 2001, is one of my favorites as he delves further into the hero Oskar Schindler. He teaches and guides us through his analysis of not only the film but also studies the hero's actions and Spielberg's filmmaking choices. The last paragraph in his review is personal and one of my favorites; he writes, "The film's ending brings me to tears." And how would Roger break down Scorsese's Osage film, who he has proclaimed his favorite living filmmaker? Fortunately, the answer is clear—by reading Roger's reviews, based on empathy. -Sarah Knight Adamson

"Diary of a Country Priest"

Chaz asked everyone affiliated with the site to commemorate the occasion by writing on the theme of empathy. The word struck me because I associated it with Roger’s writing long before he described cinema as a machine that generates empathy. I thought back on the decades before I first met him to try to figure out exactly when I began to associate “empathy” with Roger specifically, and realized that it was when I read his 2011 essay on Robert Bresson’s drama “Diary of a Country Priest,” nearly a quarter century after seeing it for the first time. (Read this full piece here.) -Matt Zoller Seitz

"The Deer Hunter"

The power of empathy is the way in which it catches you by surprise. You think you’re just going to see a movie, and then suddenly you become emotionally engaged by the situations and circumstances of the strangers of the screen. Roger’s review of "The Deer Hunter" (1978) states, “It gathers you up, it takes you along, it doesn’t let up.” When the film ended, it took me almost 20 minutes to compose myself enough to leave the theater. I had never wept like that in public before. The film asked me to share the pain of loss and friendship. -Eric Pierson

"Gates of Heaven"

Other people will always be something of a mystery, as much as we may yearn to solve them. Empathy is the force that keeps our investigation going. No documentary quite captured this dogged pursuit like Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven,” a beguiling and transcendent survey of naturally enigmatic folk whose lives and furry loved ones are deeply connected to a pet cemetery. The 1978 film was made by a young Errol Morris and primed for a kindred soul like Roger’s for endless excavation. In his Great Movies essay about the film, he said he has seen it “perhaps 30 times,” and “I’m still not near the bottom of it.” Part of this is the complex tone Morris creates. As Roger writes about what Morris chooses to emphasize and how, the film can be “serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking.” But it’s the people who make it undefinable, too: their expansive observations on grief, often on the subject of pet memories, are philosophies broadcast from one’s core. ("There's your dog; your dog's dead. But where's the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn't it?") “Gates of Heaven” is as expansive as everything above ground and under it; it’s no wonder that Roger kept returning to it, championing its empathetic portrayal of people that comes with more mysteries than answers. -Nick Allen


"The Third Man"

The first time I ever watched a movie shortly after reading Roger's review of it was with his essay on "The Third Man" contained in the first volume of his The Great Movies book series. I watched it early in 2006, a few weeks after graduating college when I had no idea what to do with my life. I had just bought "The Great Movies" at the end of an aimless evening wandering around Borders (RIP), and the way I responded to both the film and to Roger's writing about it had a profound impact on me. Roger loved movies about people doing the right thing, and I still think about the way he compared "The Third Man" to "Casablanca" (both among his favorite films ever). In "Casablanca," doing the right thing meant sending the girl away, but in "The Third Man," doing the right thing meant watching the girl slowly walk away by her own choice. And yet both men, despite knowing what they were likely to lose, made the right choice simply because it was the right thing to do. Roger loved that about both films, and I loved that about Roger. -Daniel Joyaux

"The Color Purple"

Roger named Steven Spielberg’s "The Color Purple" the best film of 1985. Based on Alice Walker’s novel, the film has immense depth, and tears are bound to fall from the ugly truths displayed. Although it was nominated for nearly a dozen Oscars, it won none. The film is a masterpiece, and the acting is superb and unforgettable. In Black families, the characters are often imitated, and lines recited; even in moments of weakness and hurt, this levity can be proof that Black people truly possess the Secret of Joy. The film captures an unfortunate relatability to older audiences, but the fact that younger audiences make light of it on social media platforms like TikTok shows that we’ve become desensitized from the painful truth, making it fodder for the masses. The film evokes empathy from the beginning, so much so, that you feel like a delicate purple flower that should never go unnoticed. Roger showed honor to a film not fully recognized by Hollywood and expressed how he connected to characters like Celie. "The Color Purple" brings great connectivity and understanding. -Niani Scott

"Some Like It Hot"

It is not just movies that make us cry that teach us empathy. Comedies make us see through the eyes and into the characters' hearts just as well or better. The movie the American Film Institute designated as the funniest movie of all time, selected by Roger as indisputably great, is the classic “Some Like it Hot,” directed by Billy Wilder. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians on the run from brutal gangsters. They pretend to be women so they can hide out with an “all-girl band.” In the early scenes, we see both, especially Curtis’ character Joe, objectify and take advantage of women. Joe tries to continue that pattern with Marilyn Monroe as Sugar, a member of his new band. But “being” women shows the men what it feels like to be “othered” and preyed upon. Sugar’s confiding in them because she thinks they’re women that teaches them that women are vulnerable and worthy of respect and love. One of the film’s funniest scenes is when Lemmon’s character loses himself so completely in a female perspective that he begins to forget who he is. Seeing these men learn empathy reminds us how we can imagine others’ perspectives to empathize more fully, too. -Nell Minow

"The Tree of Life"

I pick 2011’s “The Tree of Life” as an empathy machine, one that clicked with Roger’s boyhood upbringing. He wrote in his intro: "Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I've seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and it lacked Malick's fierce evocation of human feeling. Several directors once yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. Malick has stayed true to that hope since his first feature in 1973."

Roger continued to reveal how Malick's film transported him: "I didn't know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of "The Tree of Life" reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick's gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things." -Susan Wloszczyna

"Tokyo Story"

From the first time I saw it, “Tokyo Story” left an indelible impression on me. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu and released in 1953, it's just as relevant today as it was then. It’s a universal film about getting older, family responsibilities, and making sacrifices for those we love that anybody can relate to. I thought I knew everything there was to know about “Tokyo Story,” and the children's lack of interest in their aging parents was solely about disrespect. Imagine, their late son’s widow makes more time for this elderly couple than their children! But Ebert looked deeper into why the children might not be attentive toward their parents–it’s a veil to protect them from dealing with more delicate questions about life and happiness. When someone asks how your day is going, the typical response is to answer in the affirmative, “I’m good.” As a society, we rarely want to get into the minutia of our daily lives, so all that’s left is slight pleasantries. I can now see those children in a different light, as their indifference might not solely lie with the inconvenience caused by a disruption of their daily lives, but rather, protecting themselves from the harsh truths that exist in all our lives about our parents, aging, and what comes next. -Max Covill

"The Day He Arrives"

In 2012, Roger Ebert reviewed Sang-soo Hong's "The Day He Arrives" and expressed his admiration for the film's ability to capture the human condition. Ebert described the film as a portrayal of how people live, talk, strive, and pass their days. The South Korean drama depicts the protagonist, Seong-jun, visiting his friend in Seoul, where time seems to melt into an endless loop. Ebert referred to this as a "circle of loneliness" and praised the film for its ability to convey a universal truth. The audience is left with a pearl of bittersweet wisdom that reminds us to face the present moment as life presents itself in no more than today's worth of time. -Brandon Towns

"Coming Home"

Until this week, there was only one Hal Ashby film from the 1970s I had not seen: "Coming Home." I was greatly moved by the film and found it to be (contrary to those who think of it as a less personal entry in the Ashby oeuvre) a perfect example of the late auteur’s cinema. Ashby was funny and often irreverent, but the quality that stands out as I age is how he loved his characters. This was not the base sentimentality pretending to be love that leads to romanticized dishonesty, nor did this feeling permit the storyteller to give his characters inauthentic happy endings. The root of Ashby’s love was empathy. Ashby empathized intensely with his characters, even the characters (like Bruce Dern’s Captain Bob Hyde, a military man and true believer who gladly goes to Vietnam only to have everything he believes in melt away) who didn’t have much in common with the filmmaker. I looked up Roger Ebert’s review the next day. Our experience of the film was separated by 45 years, but that gulf was erased as soon as I began reading the review. Ebert was an ideal person to review Ashby because his reviews evinced the same love born of empathy Ashby’s films did. He summed up the film, which is driven by the illicit stateside love affair between Captain Hyde’s wife Sally and a paraplegic Vietnam veteran named Luke (played by Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, respectively, who each won Academy Awards for their work), thusly: “Thinking about the movie, we realize that men and women have been so polarized in so many films, have been made into so many varieties of sexual antagonists or lovers or rivals or other couples, that the mutual human friendship of these two characters comes as something of a revelation.” This kind of insight elevates a film review into a work of art itself. Ebert’s absence has been a profound loss for the medium, but I take solace in the fact that the beautiful words remain. -Brandon Wilson

"Floating Weeds"

When Roger Ebert once declared that films are like machines that generate empathy, he was referring to films that help us identify with the people that are sharing their journey with us. This is precisely why he was so drawn to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, whom he refers to in his review of "Floating Weeds" as “the quietest and most gentle of directors, the most humanistic.” In the opening paragraph of this sensitive piece of writing, Roger writes that “the emotions that flow through his films are strong and deep because they reflect the things we care about the most: Parents and children, marriage or a life lived alone, illness and death, and taking care of one another.”

Roger Ebert was one of the most thoughtful, understanding, and compassionate human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting, and I always feel moved when reading this particular review because “illness and death and taking care of one another” was something he dealt with during the last chapter of his own life. His review of "Floating Weeds" not only encapsulates the idea of films as empathy machines but films as something we can turn to when in need of comfort after a loss, disappointment or misfortune. At one point in the review, he writes, “Floating Weeds (1959) is like a familiar piece of music that I can turn to for reassurance and consolation.” It gives me great relief knowing that when things got tough, Roger Ebert was surrounded not only by loved ones, but the films that he loved. The final sentence of this beautiful review perfectly sums up how the best films bring us closer together by making us recognize our similarities rather than our differences. He writes, “In his stories about people who live far away, you recognize, in one way or another, everyone you know.” -Wael Khairy

"The Grey"

Roger Ebert's review of "The Grey"—about men who survive a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, only to encounter wolves—first describes Liam Neeson's Ottway by his occupation: "He is a marksman for the oil company. His job is to shoot wolves." Still, Ebert knows that what a man is hired to do, and what a man does, are two very different things; why he does it is another question entirely. Ebert wants to understand. Of the men, he writes, "They have the kinds of jobs you might take if you were desperate for the good pay, or perhaps driven to seek a place far from society where it is assumed that when you are not working, you are sleeping or drinking." Stranded in nature, Ottway and his men incur its wrath. Ebert notes the "pitiless logic" of the film's progression reveals more about them as individuals than you'd imagine. He observes as well how Ottway's struggle, between his survival instinct and mounting despair, is emblematic of what faces all the men, perhaps all men: "Now that his life has become precarious, he fiercely clings to it." That "The Grey" stunned Ebert is clear; he sat through all the credits and still could not shake it, even during his next screening. "It was the first time I've ever walked out of a film because of the previous film," he writes. "The way I was feeling in my gut, it just wouldn't have been fair to the next film." He knew that "The Grey" had moved him, and that he wasn't yet ready to let it go. -Isaac Feldberg

"Santa Sangre"

Roger’s review of “Santa Sangre” has a couple of stand-out passages, one of which speaks to the hard core of his career-long search for art, empathy, and meaning in filmmaking. The first part of this review that comes to mind is when Roger says there should be more horror movies for adults. “Of course the movie is rated NC-17,” he writes. Then he says something that I honestly wasn’t sure was in this article; at first I thought it might be in Roger’s piece on the nightmarish WW2 drama “Come and See.”

I still hold onto my early reservations, partly because my experiences with Jodorowsky’s movies are my own. For starters, I first knew him as a comic book writer, having devoured his The Metabarons comics when I was a teenager. I also love the concluding line of Roger’s “Santa Sangre” review, where he speculates that “Maybe one difference between great horror films and all the others is that the great ones do not celebrate evil, but challenge it.” I don’t completely agree, but I am still wondering if Roger was on to something. -Simon Abrams

"Blue Velvet"

Whenever I'm asked about my favorite Roger Ebert reviews, I almost inevitably go to what he wrote about David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” when it came out in 1986. Even though I disagree with him completely in regards to the film in question, the ideas and observations that he raises in his analysis of that film are so intriguing and so powerfully voiced that it still makes for fascinating reading. One element that makes it so interesting is his discussion about Isabella Rossellini’s brave and bold performance and how he felt that Lynch was undercutting the intensity of her work with his oddball and ironic approach to the material. Instead of merely focusing on the film’s stylistic content, he delved deeper into the trust that forms between performers and directors, especially in the service of the kind of risky material found in a film like “Blue Velvet,” and how he felt that Lynch did not live up to his end of the bargain in this case. Again, I do not necessarily agree with his criticisms, but his observations on the actor-filmmaker relationship have always stuck with me. Whenever I see and come to review a film that involves emotionally fraught material of this sort, they inevitably come to mind. -Peter Sobczynski

"You Were Never Really Here"

Roger Ebert’s proclamation of film as an empathy machine is perhaps one of the aptest descriptions of the power of cinema. Lynne Ramsey’s 2017 film "You Were Never Really Here” encapsulates this idea at its full power. A film that could easily be swayed into brawny action territory instead chooses to dive directly into the heart. Focused on a hitman named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) as he endeavors to save a young girl from trafficking, we follow not only the poignancy of a child at risk but also Joe’s own emotional skeletons. The film holds back the physical, cutting away from moments of brutality. The impact is not in hammers to heads or bullets in bodies. Instead, its cutaways into surreal dream sequences and painterly asides of slow-moving depressive spells that pulse with power and reverb in mind and heart. Violence is treated as a peripheral consequence, while Joe’s trauma, depression, and a choking sense of dissociation drive him forward task-wise and helplessly hold him back emotionally. Even as we watch bodies fall (albeit sex trafficker bodies) by his hand, we long for him to come out on the other side, as we’re drained by the hopelessness he feels himself and the yearning for him to swim above the surface. Through patient direction, lingering cinematography, and a dynamo lead performance from Phoenix, “You Were Never Really Here” takes the distant, cold-hearted prototype of a contract killer and renders him tangibly, emotionally, and desperately human. -Peyton Robinson

Various Reviews

I’ve always been a sensitive soul. This year’s “Aftersun” wrecked me in the final moments, as did two googly-eyed rocks who spoke only in thoughts, but I’ve wept at plenty of other films. I cry when Edward Scissorhands makes snow, and an older Kim imagines dancing in it. When Dragline recounts Luke’s exploits, and Red skips parole to see his friend and shake his hand. I get teary when EVE’s spark revives WALL-E, Mad Max tells Furiosa his name, and Peter Quill eulogizes Yondu, the only father he’s ever known.  

I mention all this not to show what a sap I am but to note how odd I’ve felt not to cry when diagnosed with cancer. The doctor caught it in December. I had surgery in January, and I’m rebounding well, though I’m undergoing chemotherapy to reduce my chances of recurrence. I'm not dying or anything, as I've said a few times, reassuring others as much as myself. Yet I often wonder where the tears are, perhaps hiding somewhere till I'm off this train. Still, when I need to think or feel beyond “weird” or “surreal,” I cue up those empathy machines. Some scenes or films I know will bring on the waterworks are too intense for me right now, so I turn back to the Guardians, watching when Peter tells Mantis how learning she’s his sister is the best present ever. Or I weep from the climax through the credits of “The Magician’s Elephant,” which might have struck me hard anyway, but these days hearing how something is impossible only until it's not hits me straight in the heart. Movies, indeed, are empathy machines, but they’re also therapy. As much as they open our minds to new experiences, sometimes we need their help to restore us, to tap into those places we’re otherwise not ready to go. -Valerie Kalfrin

"Wattstax"

I gotta take it all the way back to 1973, when he wrote a review of one of my favorite concert films, "Wattstax." In his review, Ebert recognized “the sense of spontaneous joy that fills the film.” He even spends the first few paragraphs giving a detailed description of the messianic entrance headlining act Isaac Hayes gives when he hits the stage. Ebert appreciated not just the music (provided by various Stax artists of the era) but the different Black voices (including a young Richard Pryor) director Mel Stuart gave the floor to when he filmed interviews. "Wattstax" showed a well-rounded, multi-dimensional view of Black America, back when the forums for Black folk were quite limited. The review is not on the site, but I found it on Newspapers.com. -Craig Lindsey

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