Roger Ebert, and the movies as an empathy generating machine

Tonight I watched the documentary Life Itself, a celebratory but warts-and-all portrait of a very intelligent and thoughtful man, film critic Roger Ebert.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, since I have many good childhood memories of watching Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. As an adult, I have enjoyed and admired not only his reviews but also his thoughtful writing on his blog. The movie did not shy away from the distressing parts of his cancer, but it also showed how much appetite he had for life even up to the very end. It made me think about what it means to have a good life, what it means to live life fully, and also what it means to have a good death.

Something else it made me think about is empathy. On this blog, I have written a few times about how reading narrative helps build empathy. It places us in the shoes of someone else, so we can begin to imagine what life must be like for others who are very different from us. Recently I quoted an inmate who said the prison book club was where he could be human. This building of empathy, I think, is one of the humanizing effects of literature and reading.

In the speech he gave when he accepted his star on the Walk of Fame, Ebert made reference to the movies as an empathy generating machine:

We are born into a box of space and time. We are who and when and what we are and we’re going to be that person until we die. But if we remain only that person, we will never grow and we will never change and things will never get better.

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. 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.

This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.

The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.

I think this is generally true of the arts, but particularly in narrative-driven art like literature and, yes, the movies. Sometimes I joke that all society’s ills could be fixed if we could just get everyone into the right book club. Maybe a film club could do the same thing. At any rate, something very human happens when we watch a film or read a piece of literature, and I agree with Roger Ebert it’s the generation of empathy.

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