“I believe emphathy is the most essential quality of a civilization.” – Roger Ebert
The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, bestselling author, screenwriter, and television personality Roger Ebert has died at age 70.
Of all the tributes and remembrances I’ve read so far, I was really touched by Scott Tobias’ for The A.V. Club, which I recommend. It certainly resonated with me.
I wrote about Mr. Ebert many times at my former blog. I’ve long been a fan of him and his work, especially his blog for the Chicago Sun-Times. Though I think he and I had sometimes quite different tastes in films, I never felt that he was anything other than a wonderful writer and I always enjoyed his reviews very much — even when he was excoriating my favorite movies, or enthusing about ones I hadn’t been all that crazy about.
On top of all his good work in journalism, I feel he also did a great deal for people in my profession by talking frankly with his readership about everything from his addiction to his cancer to his spirituality. I’d encourage chaplains and other spiritual caregivers to read (along with his recent memoir Life Itself) his inspiring essay “It Wouldn’t Be Ebertfest Without Roger”, his blog post on the occasion of Studs Terkel’s 96th birthday, his blog post in which he came out as a recovering alcoholic, and his Salon article “I Do Not Fear Death”. It’s also well worth your time to watch his TED Talk and his appearance on Oprah.
A few years ago, Mr. Ebert posted about a correspondence with a young fan who wrote to him to say, “I find your work is filled with an essentially humanitarian philosophy, dealing with concepts like redemption.” Mr. Ebert responded by saying:
I’m often asked which movies made me cry. Without making a list (I hate lists of movies, which are so reductive), I’d have to reply that the deliberately sad films, the “weepies,” rarely make me cry. What gets to me are the films about goodness — about people acting bravely or generously or in self-sacrifice.
He lists a number of films that fit the bill (including Cries and Whispers, Ikiru, Schindler’s List, Million Dollar Baby, and Juno). Though he’s obviously quite taken with these films as wholes, I found it interesting that he focused on particular scenes that elicited not just tears, but empathy — that quality he held in such high esteem.
The post got me thinking about what moves me at the movies and why. What moves me especially, I think, is when a filmmaker is able to inspire those same feelings of empathy and compassion in me. That seems to happen for me when I’m able to see the characters in a certain way. When they’re looked at non-judgmentally. When they’re vulnerable. When there’s a lot of truth in the performance. When the filmmakers aren’t necessarily making meaning out of things, but just letting the characters and situations be as they are. When it’s honest cinema.
I did this once before at the old blog, but today I’m going to do it again as a tribute to Mr. Ebert. Below are five scenes that really touched my heart — and continue to do so. I hope you’ll share some of yours as a way of honoring this wonderful writer and man.
* City Lights (1931), dir. Charlie Chaplin
A once-blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) realizes that her mysterious benefactor is in fact a little tramp (Chaplin).
* Kicking and Screaming (1995), dir. Noah Baumbach
A stuck and heartbroken Grover (Josh Hamilton) “chooses to go to Prague.”
* Lincoln (2012), dir. Steven Spielberg
In trying to discern his next steps in the struggle to simulatenously pass the 13th Amendment and end the Civil War, the 16th President (Daniel Day-Lewis) ponders Euclid’s common notions with two young telegraph operators.
* Sideways (2004), dir. Alexander Payne
Miles (Paul Giamatti) talks about Pinot Noir, and Maya (Virginia Madsen) about why she’s “into wine.”
* The Thin Red Line (1998), dir. Terrence Malick
Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) discuss loneliness and “the beautiful light” in an abandoned house.