Memoria and the Limitations of Ebert’s Empathy Machine

photo: NEON

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is no stranger to hauntings. In his 2021 film Memoria, it’s a mysterious sound that torments Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish orchid grower who lives in Colombia. She attempts to describe the noise that only she can hear, in her limited Spanish, to young sound engineer Hernán. The friendly engineer creates a sound file alongside her, intently editing and reshaping the noise based on her halting suggestions, attempting to capture what she is describing with each new permutation. When she returns to the studio to find him, he has disappeared, and no one there recognizes his name or her description of him.

Increasingly agitated by this unnameable noise, Jessica ventures into the countryside, where she meets an older man who has never left his rural village. His name is also Hernán—how could it not be—and he possesses an uncanny, semi-psychic connection to the earth. He can recall every moment of his life and others’ lives, able to sense what has happened through unseen vibrations. In their sporadic conversation, he hints at containing a repository of stories of Colombia’s Indigenous past and colonial history. Hernán seems both utterly mundane, scaling fish and sipping homemade liquor, and semi-divine in his omniscience. 

Though the subjects of many of these memories are long gone, the land has retained the events that have transpired on it, and Hernán has absorbed these stories through the earth’s vibrations. He cannot forget any memory he’s taken on, whether or not he actually experienced it. But as the two converse, they seem to recall the same memory, trading fragmented recollections of one of their—or maybe neither of their—mothers. Clasping hands as a radio whirs in the background, the two seem to be transmitting information to each other, perhaps through those same aforementioned terrestrial vibrations.

Throughout Memoria, Jessica struggles to communicate with the people around her. She speaks slowly, and we see her translate every word in her head. But it’s not just a linguistic barrier. How does one describe the intangible qualities of a sound, even if you have every possible word at your disposal? How can Jessica describe Tokyo to a stranger who has never been? How can I tell you what my mother was wearing when you’ve never met her? And even if I could make you see exactly what I saw, or what I think I did, what would be the point?

There’s a famous clip of Roger Ebert describing film as a “machine that generates empathy.” It’s a line that has become toweringly famous, a quotation illuminating both the power of movie-making and Ebert’s ethos as a legendary critic and film lover. In recent years, it’s been used to discuss films in frustratingly short-sighted ways, with people arguing that they should have positive moral messages so that they can teach the audience to have empathy for the film’s subjects, and thus the real life people who resemble them. Memoria questions the power of that empathy machine—what’s possible to feel secondhand, and why it matters that we share our experiences at all. The film highlights the seeming impossibility of a truly shared experience.

Jessica’s failure to connect with others isn’t helped by the intrusive, constant clanging. There are moments where we are likely meant to doubt her sanity. It’s unclear who among her acquaintances and family are dead and who are living. Is it possible that the first Hernán—the affable stranger who offers to buy her a refrigerator for her orchids, and whom no one seems to recognize—was a hallucination conjured by a desperate, lonely woman? What about the dog her sister mentions, and then seems puzzled by when Jessica brings it up again? 

I do not interpret Memoria as a film about a woman’s delusions. If Jessica’s experiences are hallucinations, they’re as real as anything else in the movie. Jessica’s character is an attempt to understand the tension between spectatorship, individual realities, and truth. She asks whether one can ever really share what another person has privately experienced, or thought, or seen. Memoria’s non-traditional release method builds on that concept, insisting that the movie-watching, an activity that has become increasingly individual, is done collectively. 

To even write about Memoria is challenging because the movie is only available in theaters. The ability to rewatch any part of a movie is one we’ve taken for granted in the streaming boom and with home video. Even the most casual of critics can trot to a streaming site and scrub through Apichatpong’s oeuvre to transcribe a scene to the page. But Memoria has promised to be shown in a neverending theatrical run, jumping from theater to theater across the country, forcing strangers to gather if they want to watch it. It’s almost a joke: you are required to share the experience of watching a movie about the impossibilities of a shared experience.

Writing about Memoria ignites the very challenge Jessica faces: how do I translate my thoughts to another person who cannot hold them, and why am I so determined to do so? Recalling the movie now, fitting to Memoria’s tone and ethos, is like trying to recall a dream. As much as I love the prickly cinephilia of the non-stop run, I’m frustrated with the limitations of my meager note-taking, my fleeting memories, and several open tabs of user-submitted summaries and scripts. I can’t go back to find the exact words and intonation Jessica uses, or to study the camera movements in a particular scene, and I am intensely aware of how imperfect my approximation of this movie is as I try to describe it here, in a different medium, to a reader I do not know.

In both the content and the release structure, Memoria deliberately invokes not just questions of the limitations of empathy, but its inherent usefulness as a social mechanism. What if the ability to totally empathize with others results in a life of solitude, as it does for the second Hernán? What if the constant struggle to connect to each other forces us into isolation, as it does for Jessica? If this movie was supposed to be an empathy machine, I thought while watching, who was turning the crank?

The bastardization of Ebert’s “empathy machine” has become an entire school of film criticism and film marketing, where a film’s quality is judged secondarily to its moral intent. The Telegraph’s pan of Tár that went viral on Twitter is a perfect example: the review criticized the characterization of Lydia Tár, not because she was poorly imagined or contradictorily written, but because she was a negative portrayal of a lesbian character. “If you are going to make up a story,” the review wrote, “it would have been a better film if it was two hours of hope.” This is pure empathy machine thinking: movies have a responsibility to plainly teach those in the mainstream to respect those who are marginalized. Representation politics commodify the identities that were once used to coalition-build into studio checklists. This framework does not serve the immense diversity of experience, talent, and artistic expression in a heterogeneous community. It’s a preemptive marketing strike that sells you a movie by telling you it will prove you’re a good person. But the empathy machine is a dead end. There is no film that will stop the societal problems caused by our fundamental lack of empathy for each other. 

The Martin Scorsese vs. Marvel debate that rages on, mostly one-sided and mostly online, shows how quickly the empathy machine school has come to dominate mainstream cinema. “We define cinema as a film that can bring people together to have a shared, emotional experience,” Avengers: Endgame director Joe Russo said in response to criticism Scorsese wrote about modern film franchises. Thor director Taika Waititi’s joke response perfectly highlights the empathy machine as a marketing tool. “Of course it’s cinema! It’s at the movies. It’s in cinemas…” he says, pointing at the camera, “…near you!” Russo’s statement—along with the defenses made by his colleagues—are perfect examples of empathy machine thinking. The empathy machine school sees film as a conveyor belt for a single shared emotive experience, and nobody cares whether a conveyor belt is artistically made.

I see the rise of empathy machine thinking as inextricably tied to the IP boom, particularly in the routinely moralistic superhero genre. Film criticism, never a lucrative art, is increasingly being replaced by fanboyism. Anyone who’s ever looked for a steady gig reviewing film can attest that “familiarity with [long list of major cinematic franchises] preferred” is a depressingly common opening line. Many sites still host reviews if you can find them buried under positive PR, while magazines devoted to film criticism are nearly extinct. The sites that champion thoughtful film criticism are run on precarious budgets.

In a flattened media landscape ruled by advertisements and clicks, it’s cheaper to produce a dozen bullet points ripped from a press release about the positive messages of the latest blockbuster than several hundred words about directorial intent and cinematography. The empathy machine reduces film to just more content, indistinguishable from any other consumer product—and it’s easier to sell content on nutritional value that can be bluntly demonstrated through screenshots and plot summaries rather than some subjective argument for its artistry. 

The bastardized empathy machine posits empathy as a transaction any individual can obtain at home by watching a movie. For Black History Month or Juneteenth, you can digest these 11-15 movies that will teach you empathy for Black people. There’s another assignment for International Women’s Day, for Pride Month, for whichever holiday the mainstream has recently learned can be commodified. It’s an explicitly narcissistic way of looking at film that centers a mainstream white audience; every film serves only to educate and improve me. Filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors who do not physically resemble me need to teach me about their histories and experiences in ways that I can digest and understand. 

It’s also a school of thought that Ebert roundly rejected. Though he often spoke about his preference for movies with good, strong characters, he never dismissed movies on purely moral grounds. Recall his famous defense of Justin Lin’s wonderful Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), which an audience member criticized for its “amoral” portrayal of Asian-American characters. Ebert responded that a white filmmaker would never receive the same criticism, and that it was offensive to say that Lin’s role was to educate the non-Asian audience members. To reduce a film’s quality to whether it effectively demonstrates that people who do not physically resemble you are also human, or to reduce criticism to a decision of whether the film’s characters are suitable role models, is to fundamentally misunderstand Ebert’s ethos.

Ebert championed film as a visual artform, and if you read his reviews, you can see that he saw criticism as an artform in service of that mission. The empathy machine school does not see empathy as an ongoing project of understanding, as Ebert did, and as he states: “The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people, find out what makes them tick, what they care about…[A great movie] helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Ebert wrote of film as a way for humans to engage with each other, to reflect on our shared and disparate experiences, to participate in the fundamentally human activity of social connection.

But in its inherently provocative investigation of the power of empathy, Memoria completely rejects the narcissism and isolationism of the empathy machine school. Memoria unravels what it means to connect to another person and why we continue to do it at all, given how often it can be painful and completely thankless. We see clearly the difficulty of Jessica’s attempts to communicate to another person her memories, thoughts, and experiences. But at the end of the film, we also see the rewards that come from being able to express yourself, and of having someone listen to you. That intrusive sound hasn’t stopped, and the explanation the movie proffers for it asks far more than it answers. But, importantly, the noise stops irritating Jessica.  

The hard edges of her loneliness and isolation have been softened by her transcendent interaction with both Hernáns—if there are indeed two, and not just one split into two bodies or across two planes of existence. Swinton’s natural iciness, her understated flair for regality, help define and justify Jessica’s solitude. Apichatpong depicts Jessica as purposefully alien in this community, giving no explanation as to why she lives here and little background on what she does. Her movements are slow and deliberate, perfectly suited for the film’s long, lingering shots on its subjects, where each moment unfolds with dream-like ambience. When the second Hernán falls asleep, demonstrating his death-like state of slumber to Jessica, it seems as though he truly might be dead until he wakes (or does he resurrect?). As he lies completely unmoving for an uncomfortable amount of time, we’re offered the chance to see him through Jessica’s eyes, to stare at a stranger and search for any signs of life.

As I assume Jessica’s gaze while Hernán sleeps, I reflect on how she might view life on the flower farm she mentions. In the conversation Jessica has with the first Hernán, she talks about the many ways flowers can die. Keeping cut flowers is a race against time one cannot win; a good refrigerator can keep out bugs and mold, but it cannot stop entropy. The second Hernán, who seems to live untethered to the conventional notion of linear time or the quantum certainties of death, is in complete contrast with the world she’s understood.

He is uninterested in gathering new memories because he cannot forget anything he has learned; in a brief conversation where he recalls another person’s violent and senseless assault, we get a glimpse of the immense pain this life might hold. But this Hernán exudes an almost divine tranquility, perhaps one acquired as a result of his unique gifts. The things we fear, what Jessica fears as represented by that terrifying noise—the finality of death, the terror of being alone and unseen, the fundamental lack of control we have over our life and circumstances—do not seem to frighten Hernán. He has accepted his role as a repository of other people’s—maybe an entire people’s—experiences, both horrifying and joyous.

Apichatpong, who was born in Bangkok, has spoken about wanting to make a movie in Colombia as a way to reflect on the violent history of Thailand. Memoria contains several layers of an investigated colonial heritage, starting with its origins as a project that would allow Apichatpong to resist the politically stringent Thai studio system. In Memoria, he uncovers some pieces of the history he has learned but not physically lived, and the desire to connect to that history.

The metaphysical shadow of collective, traumatic history is a theme that appears throughout Apichatpong’s work, and Memoria interrogates the assumptions surrounding the stories we share and hear about others. Jessica’s sister tells a story that could be straight from Rudyard Kipling, about an isolated tribe that puts curses on any who attempt to intrude on their land. Perhaps the stories that have been publicly remembered among the country’s white populace are these sensationalized fables, but the arrival of the second Hernán is proof of the complex, lingering history of Colombia’s Indigenous resistance, and the power of collective memory.

Both Hernáns are representative of the transcendence offered by human connection, even if that connection is unorthodox, uncertain, or ephemeral. The fogginess of Jessica’s memory is not a gesture to her potential mental instability but a remark on the subjectivity of recollection (which the title of the film also gestures to). The film existing as a reconfiguration of Jessica’s memories would explain some of its discrepancies, like the reappearance of Hernán or the confusion around her sister’s stories. It’s not so simple, as Memoria takes place out of order; rather, like the second Hernán, the movie elides past and present in an existential meditation on why we bother to share ourselves with others. 

Hernán and Jessica compare their act of memory-sharing to that of an antenna and a hard drive, two devices imperceptibly communicating information to the other. Jessica has spent the entire movie trying to narrate the noise she keeps hearing, trying to communicate an experience only she can have, and at the finale she has finally found someone able to receive it. As the viewer, we are both Hernán and Jessica, caught in this fraught space of receiving and responding to an expression. Memoria is so much more than a simple empathy machine. 

In the end, the film does not resolve so much as quietly dissolve. It complicates, but does not answer, the mysteries it continually provokes. Memoria pokes at our cultural assumptions of the boundaries between the real and the metaphysical, and challenges the relationship between viewer and subject. It understands what Ebert talked about in his empathy machine speech and throughout his work as a reviewer—film’s power to confront and share our humanity. Apichatpong examines why we continue to see and make art with others even in the face of remarkable, evolving challenges; why we still try to express ourselves, knowing any expression is inherently imperfect. It’s a movie that asks us whether we are willing to embrace the experiences of these strangers, to witness and hold so many unsolved mysteries, and absorb, in a theater amongst strangers, the sounds of a story we haven’t heard before.