When Roger Ebert passed away in April of this year, one quote that made significant rounds was his assertion that, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” It would be easy to extract this quote as a solitary, general observation on the value of empathy, bereft of its cinematically specific context. Some liked to see Ebert’s overt progressive politics as separate from his evaluation of films, but in fact the two were inextricably linked. The source of this quote, in fact, came from Ebert’s overview of Cannes in 2010, in which he discussed what a diverse array of art films like Lee-Chang Dong’s Poetry and Mike Leigh’s Another Year collectively offered despite their evident differences. The full quote reads as follows:
These aren’t all masterpieces, although some are, but they’re all Real Movies. None follows a familiar story arc. All involve intense involvement with their characters. All do something that is perhaps the most important thing a movie can do: They take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.
If empathy is the most essential quality of a civilization, as Ebert makes the case for, then movies which invite the viewer to have an empathetic experience become far more than “just movies,” but “Real Movies” – that is, devices that shape a compassionate worldview which acknowledges the unique experience of people unlike oneself. 2013 not only saw the release of a notable number of Real Movies, but offered a small but significant handful of movies that were instructive of the empathetic process itself, movies that illustrated how social positions – and thus, subjectivities, identities, and worldviews – can easily change.
“Fish out of water” is a narrative term typically reserved for describing the high-concept comedies, but it’s a trope that’s undervalued in terms of its particular utility for drama. And it’s this trope that structured some of the most celebrated performances of 2013. While Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Jean-Marc Valée’s Dallas Buyers Club, and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine address political topics whose only connection seems to be their shared American setting, yet they each chronicle the story of a protagonist whose social position and identity changes drastically from circumstances outside of their own volition.
12 Years a Slave, as I said in my Top 5 list of 2013, has been mislabeled as the “definitive” film on slavery by some. Yet an important part of the film’s power lies in its ability to do the exact opposite: to open up through its extended cast of supporting characters many stories of the American slave experience unavailable in the received histories through which we typically come to understand the country’s ugliest institution. In other words, McQueen’s film never homogenizes the experience of American black slavery. Alfre Woodard’s brief scene is simply one of many figures that demonstrate the multitude of forms in which subjection comes.
In each of the film’s episodes, the specific subject positions of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and other slaves are dictated by the interests and proclivities of particular white men. The institution of slavery dictated a systemic, insurmountable hierarchy throughout the American South, but social custom and the activities of those in power filled in the gaps – thus, Northup’s slavery is not the same as Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong’o), which in turn is not the same as Mistress Shaw’s (Woodard). The scene in which Epps (Michael Fassbender) forces Northup to whip Patsey is integral: he has no choice – nor has he ever – but to be the extension of the white landowner’s power, whether a whip occupies his hand or a bale of cotton.
Of course, Northup is not Northup at this point, but Platt. Names, like identities and social positions, are not intrinsic and essential, but elastic. When Northup is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery mere minutes into the film, it becomes clear that it matters less who Northup “is” or “was,” but who he is perceived to be by those in power. In fact, his slavery reveals the fiction of his prior “freedom” in a national system that benefits from organized racism. Northup is not only an educated free man who experiences firsthand the horrors of slavery for over a decade, but somebody whose identity is transformed into that of a slave in terms of his humanity (he is bereft of his agency) and his culture (see: the scene where he joins his fellow slaves in singing a spiritual). When Northup returns to freedom, as the film’s title promises, he is no longer the same Northup. He can’t be. There’s a reason McQueen’s camera stays looking backward as Northup rides off from Epps’s plantation.
Dallas Buyers Club in similar ways uses the pain experienced by the human body as the site where identity is transformed. Many male actors are praised in regards to the weight they’ve lost (or gained) to fulfill a particular role, but for Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff and Jared Leto’s Rayon, drastic physical transformation is essential for its social and political counterpart to be fully recognized. In fact, the film seems to directly play off of the audience’s knowledge of these stars outside the film, especially McConaughey, whose characteristic rugged charm is catered to a hard-livin,’ homophobic good ol’ boy who inadvertently becomes an advocate of experimental drug treatment for HIV patients when a desperate interest in his own survival takes hold.
Woodruff’s is an unwitting empathy, one that is dragged kicking and screaming into a frail, subjected, heavily stigmatized social position deeply contradictory to the life he had made for himself beforehand. A heavily qualified and problematic hero, Woodruff is only a friend of the outsider when he becomes one himself. Nonetheless, his transformation is the instructive lens through which a of host complex systemic issues are brought to light: homophobia, transphobia, big pharma, border politics, etc.
Unlike Northup and Woodruff, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine finds no empowering advocacy at the end of her road of unwitting transformation, but is instead (in perhaps the most unflinching ending Allen has ever made) simply rendered incapable of accepting her new position in society. Jasmine is someone who was so invested in the fantasy of wealth that had been haphazardly constructed around her that her mind simply collapses when realizing that no real human being resides behind the façade – her life was assembled too intricately by social gatherings and the most conspicuous of consumption habits for something substantial to replace it. The change she experiences is one of class, and when Jasmine must descend down that degrading ladder, she faces the crude fantasies inherent in contemporary American class identity for what they are, realizing the impossibility of upward social mobility in 21st century capitalism.
While there exist many opportunities throughout Blue Jasmine for the title character to redeem herself as many a Hollywood rom-com would require a protagonist such as this to do, Allen’s film sees Jasmine as somebody who could never refuse her own class prejudice enough to work for herself, for this prejudice and its attendant illusions make her everything she is, or was, or thought herself to be. Perhaps Blue Jasmine’s most surprising move is that it ultimately makes one empathetic for Jasmine herself. She is a victim – not by any means an innocent one, but a victim first and foremost of the fantasy of the indestructible high horse, a fantasy too few of us are unfamiliar with.
In league with Blue Jasmine, 2013 gave us many movies about one-percenters or aspiring one-percenters – movies about people who see themselves as entitled to the top of the food chain and who use any means to get there: Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. These six films about aspiration stand in direct opposition to films instructive of empathy: they require protagonists who seek to change identity in a way that does not acknowledge the consequences of their actions or their effects on others. Meanwhile, films instructive of empathy are specifically about consequences: actions by those in power and its residual, complex effects on others that those in power may never even see or be aware of.
This contrast has never been so potent in 2013 as with the debate over why the consequences of Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) actions are never shown in The Wolf of Wall Street, as if his self-aggrandizing exploitations weren’t condemnable on their face. But to show the detailed repercussions of his actions would miss a major aspect of the film’s meaning: that Belfort lives in a bubble (and still does) isolated from the consequences of his actions, that he is not only a beneficiary of privilege, but a potent viral cocktail spreading the enticing disease of greed. His isolation is essential to the fact that he and other people like him exist. That he is an unempathetic, unempathizing character is integral to the distance between the meaning and the subject of the film that allows a critical cinematic investigation of his lifestyle to take place.
But we shouldn’t forget when hearing such a criticism that there did exist a film this year about the consequences of a man like Belfort. Alec Baldwin’s Hal of Blue Jasmine could easily play an elder Belfort, but the fact that the film is not “about him” makes it easy to identify where the audience’s empathy is meant to initially lie in Allen’s film: with Jasmine and, eventually, with Jasmine herself. Thus, Blue Jasmine is not instructive of empathy in the same way as 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club. The character does not make an empathetic encounter meant to be similar to the audience’s own experience; instead, she never acquires the same empathy with her own family that the audience assumes. And it is our ability to see Jasmine – even as she refuses to see herself – that makes the film’s concluding tragedy so powerful.
Relationships between the audience and characters are a complicated game. Sometimes there can be a mess of confusion between what a filmmaker is attempting to say and what the filmmaker represents, which I found with the incredibly fascinating and thoroughly ambivalent Spring Breakers. Films that are instructive of empathy can be powerful devices for enlivening one’s experience of the world, but we must never equate this particular technique with the greater range of empathetic experiences we can have when viewing a film.
Narrative tools used by films like 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club can make for a profoundly inspiring audience experience, and even great films. But these films follow a similar pattern: they feature a character in a privileged position that one assumes the “average audience” (whatever that means) can readily identify with, and they take that character on an experience involving an encounter with the Other, an individual who, it is assumed, is more difficult to forge an identification with from the get-go. But there’s no reason that films can’t and shouldn’t be made about Patsey in 12 Years a Slave or Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (in regards to the latter, How to Survive a Plague covered the exact same material last year, and did so with considerably greater depth).
Yet when Scorsese’s position on the morality in The Wolf of Wall Street is “ambiguous,” when straight-faced people in positions of power score political points by making irresponsible comparisons to actual slavery without total repudiation in the court of public opinion, when the way we relate to one another so often resembles the second act of Before Midnight, then it’s necessary to remind ourselves why it’s important that good films so overtly instructive of empathetic compassion be made.
But filmmakers can aspire to something more than the “instructive” film about important political or social subject matter, and critics and awards ceremonies can see a film like 12 Years a Slave as the opening of a door rather than the checking of a box. The possibility that one can see a film about a person that seems to be completely unlike oneself and find some shared humanity that ties them together – that is truly empathetic moviegoing. Those are the Real Movies I want to see more of in the years to come.