Celluloid Gurus: 5 Films that Increase Empathy

image of the characters from the film The Breakfast Club

For many spiritual pilgrims “the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men,” especially the iniquities of the entertainment industry that make films like Pulp Fiction from which this quotation was taken.In my experience, however, God speaks to us in a variety of mediums including Lucasfilm THX digital dolby. If we free our minds, films can serve as everyday gurus that guide us out of the Matrix of samsara and into the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. With this in mind, here are five films that have taught me empathy and compassion.

  • Seven SamuraiLike the Bare Naked Ladies, “I don’t make films, but if I did they’d have a samurai.” Seven Samurai has always been one of my favorite films, but after watching the Criterion Edition with the film critic’s commentary, I realized how much this film is about empathy. The godly samurai have to empathize with the lowly farmers, and the farmers literally step into the shoes–or should I say zoris–of the samurai in order to defend their village. On top of all this, you have Toshiro Mifune’s heroic character–a Christ figure, if you will–being half-samurai/half-farmer. Mifune’s famous speech about how the samurai forced the farmer’s to be devious brings me to tears every time I watch this classic film. In the samurai category, Hara Kiri came in close second.
  • Magnolia–The first time I went to see this film, my friend told me that one particular scene would rock my world. He was right; the montage where all nine main characters sing Aimee Mann’s hauntingly beautiful song “Wise Up” had me crying like a 12 year old Justin Beiber fan after she found out that the Biebs was gay. Sitting alone in the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, I slipped into the shoes of a crack-whore, a cop, a pedophile, a wiz kid, a dying old man, a male nurse, a con-man, and a gold digger. Their pain was my pain. Aimee Mann was admonishing us all with her lyrics: “It’s not going to stop, ’til you wise up.” I walked out of the theater wanting to be a better man by loving everyone unconditionally.
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial–I saw this film when I was a junior in high school. My brother, his friend Don Watari, and I went to a matinee together. Don was a tough kid who belonged to a Derby jacket gang. When everyone thought E.T. was dead, I was fighting to hold back my tears because I didn’t want to cry in front of Derby Jacket Don, but I happened to glance over to see two solid streams of tears flowing down Don’s face. We became close friends after this experience although we never talked about the tears. Recently, I re-watched the film with my kids and discovered why it struck a chord with so many people: Elliot and E.T. completely empathize with each other. When E.T. drinks beer, Elliot feels drunk. When Elliot hurts, E.T. feels pain. If a 12 year old boy can empathize with an extra-terrestrial, then why can’t we empathize with each other?
  • The Breakfast Club–In my opinion, a lot of American kids are stripped of most of their empathy in high school. Suddenly, all the kids who used to be your friends in elementary school become nerds, jocks, sluts, and stoners. I can’t tell you how many people I ostracized due to my insecurities in high school. So when The Breakfast Club came out my sophomore year in college, I yearned to return to high school to treat people differently. Besides the incredible casting, this film forced everyone to empathize with different parts of the social and economic spectrum–I dream of making a modern version of this film that deals with race, class, and sexual orientation in a meaningful way.
  • The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)This German film captures the power of empathy. An officer in the Stasi–East German Secret Police–is in charge of full surveillance of a writer and his lover. By vicariously living the life of an other, the officer is transformed into an altruistic lover of the arts. The end of the film reminds me of the saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” Perhaps one of the most memorable last lines in modern film. Can anyone think of memorable last lines in films made after 1980?

If you haven’t seen these films, I hope you give them a try. They have guided me towards compassion and empathy. Feel free to post any films that have guided you towards a higher consciousness.

Thank you for reading, sharing, and/or smiling.

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9 comments on “Celluloid Gurus: 5 Films that Increase Empathy

  1. I agree about Breakfast Club. It really shows that everyone has their own pain and their own problems despite outside appearances. Check out my review http://amandalovesmovies.com/2012/03/20/the-breakfast-club

    Also, I think Pixar is amazing at creating empathy for their characters.

  2. Kozo Hattori says:

    Great review of The Breakfast Club Amanda. I posted a comment, but I reiterate–be honest, do you ever punch yourself in the arm when your write a good post like Brian does after writing the letter to “ah, dick, I mean Richard” Vernon at the end of the film?
    Also, I was going to put Toy Story on the list, but decided to use some foreign films that might not get the attention like Pixar films. Good point, though.
    My brother mentioned Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which I agree with, but I didn’t want to over-load with John Hughes films.

  3. Dieu says:

    All great choices! The ending of the Lives of Others blew me away!

    • Kozo Hattori says:

      I agree, Dieu, then ending is powerful. I keep asking myself who is happier in the end, Weisler–the ex-Stasi agent–or Dreyman–the successful artist. I have to go with Weisler, even though my materialistic tendencies wish that he would get recognition and restitution.

      • Dieu says:

        I agree. I think about how him knowing in the end that his act of kindness was recognized gave his life meaning. Now I feel like watching the film again!

      • Kozo Hattori says:

        I just watched it the other day. It is inspiring to see Dreyman/the artist take a very difficult situation and turn it into a best-selling book–hint, hint, nudge, hudge, any editors out there. What movies would you put on your list, Dieu?

      • Dieu says:

        Hmmmm, I’ll have to think about what I’d put on my list and get back to you. I can think of one at the moment. I think A Little Princess is one of those children’s films that can teach everyone about empathy. It’s about a girl who becomes for a short while an orphan and befriends a poor servant girl, and about the belief in magic and hope among many other things.

      • Kozo says:

        I’ll have to watch this film with my sons. Teach them some empathy. Thanks for the recommendation, Dieu.

  4. […] Celluloid Guru: 5 Films That Increase Empathy (everydaygurus.com) […]

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