Up Close and Personal: Cinema as a Vehicle for Empathy

In Culture, Featured, Sam Hendrian by Impact Admin

– By Sam Hendrian –

“Sometimes, you have to look hard at a person and remember he’s doing the best he can. He’s just trying to find his way, that’s all. Just like you.”

This touching advice given by Ethel Thayer (Katherine Hepburn) to Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) in the 1981 classic movie On Golden Pond is a beautiful plea for empathy, a plea that has been voiced either outwardly or inwardly by any person who has ever felt misunderstood. Perhaps more than any other art form, cinema can be a powerful vehicle for empathy, a way in which we can look through another’s eyes and become better, more compassionate people. It is the sacred responsibility of all filmmakers and actors to use cinema as an empathy-generating machine.

What makes cinema so different from other art forms when it comes to sparking empathy in viewers? There are several things, but the first distinguishing characteristic that comes to mind is the technique of the close-up. It is easiest to empathize with another person when we are staring directly into her or his eyes, eyes that may subtly mirror our own hopes, longings, and fears. A close-up allows us to do just that when we are watching a film.

One of my all-time favorite movie close-ups is in The Graduate. Young and confused Benjamin Braddock is practically forced by his parents to take Elaine Robinson on a date, but he knows this will enrage her mother, with whom he has been conducting a secret affair. Therefore, he resolves to take her to the worst place possible for a first date: a strip club. Sitting across from Elaine so that he can ogle the topless dancer behind her, Benjamin succeeds in horrifying and humiliating her. But after a moment, he looks into Elaine’s tear-stained eyes, eyes that are hurt, confused, and longing for authentic compassion. Suddenly convicted by his conscience for wounding another human person out of fear, Benjamin follows Elaine out of the club and promptly apologizes.

While we the audience are only bystanders to Benjamin’s shameful actions, we can still acutely feel Elaine’s emotional pain by staring into her eyes via close-up. The reason behind this may perhaps always remain enigmatic, but it is quite powerful. The next time our pride tempts us to say something hurtful, we should stare into the eyes of the person we would wound. The thread of our common humanity just might mystically unite with theirs, humbling our pride and destroying the unkindness about to fall from our lips.

Beyond the filmmaking technique of the literal close-up, cinema is also an effective medium for metaphorical close-ups on people’s lives. Yes, theater and literature can accomplish this as well, but neither medium stirs our visual and audial senses in quite the same way. Take, for instance, the story of Schindler’s List. It is, in fact, both a book and a movie, and it would probably be terribly heart-wrenching on stage too. But cinema lends two unique things to this poignant story: first-person visual perspective and visual/audial rhythm.

A book can be written in a first-person perspective, but due to the wonders of camerawork, a film allows us to literally see from a first-person perspective (a.k.a. the “point of view” shot). At the end of Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler is driven away from the site of the place where he saved nearly 1,200 Jews from death in the Nazi concentration camps. Through a meticulously-crafted shot, we see both Schindler and what he is seeing at the same time: fellow human beings staring at him with gratitude for having saved their lives. His own eyes are filled with guilt for having failed to save more people, and the fact that we can simultaneously experience both the guilt and gratitude of others is truly a cinematic miracle.

The other way that cinema accomplishes metaphorical close-ups is through creating visual/audial rhythm, which is predominantly completed in the editing process. Midway through Schindler’s List, the sadistic Nazi camp commandant Amon Goeth is depicted beating his Jewish maid Helen in an attempt to repress his sexual feelings for her. It is a horrifying scene in and of itself, but it is made all the more disturbing by being intercut with two simultaneous scenes of relative joviality: a secret Jewish wedding and a night club at which Oskar Schindler is playfully flirting with a showgirl.

Schindler’s playful flirtation is immediately juxtaposed with the image of Goeth fondling Helen before being repulsed by the idea of viewing an “inferior” Jewish woman in a sexual way. Meanwhile at the secret wedding, the groom fulfills a Jewish tradition of stepping on glass to symbolize the completion of the marriage nuptials. The sound of the glass shattering is immediately followed by the SLAP of Goeth hitting Helen. This warped mirroring of images and sounds fully awakens our souls to Helen’s plight and inspires us to stand up against any cruelty we witness in our own lives.

If we are to sincerely love one another, then we absolutely need to see and understand the stories of our fellow human beings, even if those stories have elements of ugliness and immorality. The Graduate and Schindler’s List are just two examples of countless cinematic works through the years that have been crafted with the intention of opening our hearts to people who are more like us than we may initially believe. All artists, whether they be filmmakers or playwrights, painters or poets, songwriters or novelists, actors or singers, have a vital responsibility to use their talents for the sake of heightening empathy in a world that so desperately needs it. Each of our lives is a work of art; let us then allow the graces of genuine love and understanding to flow through our every action.

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.