EMPATHY MACHINE


When Roger Ebert was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, he said “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”

I believe this too. I think it is the most important thing about movies. Much more than their aesthetic or commercial value, although I enjoy these aspects as well and do not wish to diminish them.

My friend Aerlan and I have been talking a lot about filmmaking as ethnography lately. Technically, an ethnography is a “scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.” [New Oxford American Dictionary] A film, you could argue, is an artistic description of the same. There are, of course, what are defined as “ethnographic films:” usually observational documentaries detailing the practices of non-Western/developing cultures. This is not what we mean. What we are interested is this sentiment, expressed by Ebert in that same address: “When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.” It is bizarre, but in a way it is undeniable that fiction can present a less alienating path to understanding than documentary. I think this has to do with a greater opportunity on the part of the fiction filmmaker to design and curate the experience of the audience. With this in mind, one must be careful not to become didactic, not to present an ‘issues’ picture where a specific and carefully calculated agenda is shoved down an audience’s throat. This is bad art, because good art inevitably, crucially, unbearably asks more questions than it answers. As Aerlan writes in a paper called Time, Empathy and Movement: Ethnographic Film Methodology: “the process of the ethnographer [filmmaker] is to design an experience that will allow the possibility for interpretation. To find a subject worth examining, by considering it as something impossible to examine in any other medium but the one they work in.”

This last sentence is of particular interest to me because screenwriting textbooks and seminars are always instructing you to make sure that the screenplay you are writing is essentially and irrevocably ‘cinematic.’ By that I mean that the medium of cinema is essential to the storytelling, that it could not be told any other way. People like Robert McKee go out of their way to disparage those art house films with long takes of their introspective protagonists staring out the window or something. “Why does this have to be a movie?” they ask (ironically, so does Charlie Kaufman at the end of this speech he gave at BAFTA). “If the story is about what is going on inside a character’s head, why isn’t it a novel?” The answer is empathy. Empathy is what happens when we see close-up shot of Juliette Binoche in Trois Couleurs: Blue and because we are not told what to think about it, we start to ask ourselves: “what could she be thinking?” In this way we are invited to, as Aerlan writes, “participate in the experience of the film, triggering [our] emotions, thoughts and perspective.”

‘Why does this have to be a movie?’ Because of what happens when we look at another person’s face. Louis C.K. talks about why it’s easier for kids to be shitty to one another on the internet: because they don’t have to look at the other person’s face. Cassavetes called an entire film Faces because he knew what maybe not all screenwriters do: that an actor’s face in a single shot can sometimes tell a better story than you could ever write. This ability of the actor when permitted is, to me, the most cinematic trait of all. More than any set piece. More than any crane shot or lighting. And I love all that stuff, that romantic aspect of filmmaking and film watching. But when forced to confront that very pertinent and expensive question: ‘why does this story have to be told as a movie,’ when the story in question is more slice-of-life, more ethnography than space opera, I will continue to invoke Ebert’s empathy paradigm and stand behind it ardently. This is more than enough of a justification for any story or style, especially in the modern discursive landscape of divisive vitriol.

A final word from Ebert on the subject: “The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.”

Amen.

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

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