Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies

Films like Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty demonstrate that we empathise much more easily with characters when we believe we are witnessing real events.

This year’s academy award nominations of Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, attest to our fascination of watching “true stories” depicted on the screen. We adopt a special set of expectations when we believe a movie is based on actual events, a sentiment the Coen Brothers parodied when they stated at the beginning of Fargo that “this is a true story,” even though it wasn’t. In the science fiction spoof, Galaxy Quest, aliens have intercepted a Star Trek-like TV show and believe the program to be a documentary of actual human warfare. As a result, they come to earth to enlist Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), star of the TV show, to help fight the evil warlord Sarris (named after the film critic, Andrew Sarris), as they believe Taggart to be a true war hero rather than merely playing one on TV.

Movies that are “based on a true story” blur the boundary between documentary and make-believe. We, much like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, expect such movies to depict an authentic portrayal of actual events. The story of Argo — about a CIA agent who helps individuals escape from Iran by having them pose as a film crew — would almost have to be based on actual events, otherwise no one would buy into such a preposterous plot! Interestingly, the climatic chase scene on the airport runway is completely fictional, though I think we forgive the filmmakers for some poetic license, particularly as the scene is so exciting. We are much less forgiving in the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, to the point where producer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have been reprimanded by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain for suggesting that torture was effective in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Yet even documentaries distort the “truth” by slanting history through biased portrayals. Should movies “based on a true story” be viewed as completely accurate documents of history?

One psychological point is clear: our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real. Studies by Richard Lazarus and others have shown that physiological markers of emotion, such as skin conductance (i.e. sweaty palms), increase when subjects believe a film to depict an actual event. In one study, subjects watched a film clip depicting an industrial accident involving a power saw. Those who were told that they were watching footage of an actual accident (rather than actors re-enacting the event) exhibited heightened emotional responses. Thus, people watching the same movie may engage themselves differently depending on the degree to which they construe the events as realistic portrayals.

Even when we know we are watching a re-enactment, as with Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, I suspect we become more emotionally attached when we believe we are witnessing actual events. We more readily empathise with characters and buy into the story. Of course, the authenticity of a movie depends not only on us having prior knowledge that a movie is based on actual events but also on how realistic the characters appear in their actions and predicaments. As wonderfully realistic and engaging as Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were, in my opinion the most “realistic” movie among this year’s Academy Award nominees is the entirely fictitious Amour, in which the elderly Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must care for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva), whose mental abilities are deteriorating from strokes. The superb acting and unusual editing (e.g. exceedingly long takes) amplify emotions and engage us as if we are watching a true and heart-wrenching story.

Arthur P Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies(ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, Psychocinematics: Cognition at the Movies.

This post first appeared on the OUP blog here, and is crossposted with their permission.

Ben Affleck in Argo, a film with such a preposterous plot it has to be based on actual events...
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I can’t be the only one who has noticed that every dish in the Western world’s a cheese sandwich

Raclette, cheesy crackers, baguettes – even ice-cream is just cheese in waiting.

Scientists examining a chicken nugget have discovered DNA from over a hundred individuals mixed into a fowl mush. It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, I always used to say to my kids when they ordered nuggets, “You realise that’s made of crushed-up chicken eyelids and testicles,” but I still imagined these were the parts of at most two or three bodies. And while no one with eyes (lidded or otherwise) could fail to see how disgusting the battery farming industry is, this new intelligence gives it a truly diabolic cast: what we’re participating in here is a sort of chicken holocaust.

I mean, I like Sadiq Khan well enough – I even voted for him to become London mayor; and I applaud his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first day in office. But c’mon, now, Sadiq, that holocaust took place some time ago, while you can walk past any takeaway, anywhere in Britain, and see a teenager put a hundred chickens in his mouth at once! How much better it is when they stick to their staple food – one that has sustained generations of European and American children, and that, one hopes, will do so for many more years to come. I refer, of course, to the cheese sandwich.

A few weeks ago I was having supper at a pizza joint with my friend Cressida, when she remarked, apropos of my ordering a Caesar salad: “Well, it makes a change from eating a cheese sandwich, which is basically what our kids have at every meal, and we ourselves do for a high proportion of them.” Then she began to itemise some of the meals that are “basically a cheese sandwich”. Lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese, a tricolore salad with a piece of nice, crusty bread? All of these, basically, are cheese sandwiches reconfigured – as is almost all Italian cuisine, the pizza being only the most egrcheesgious example.

“But what about a lovely serving of cassata, or an ice-cream treat?” I hear you moan. To which my only reply is: add a wafer, and in all but name you have a cheese sandwich right there on the plate in front of you. After all, what’s ice cream? Only cheese-in-waiting. Cheesy crackers, cheese footballs, the Swiss raclette – the French onion soup served with a chunk of baguette – the humble ploughman’s lunch, or the businessman’s haughty oysters mornay; all, let’s face it, are basically cheese sandwiches. I’m not arguing that this food monoculture is a bad thing – on the contrary, with whole flocks of chickens being immured in nugget-hecatombs, it’s comforting to realise there are still some things in the world that are fairly undifferentiated. True, a cheese sandwich can be a baroque creation, with choice ingredients piled high on a seeded bun: a meat pattie, lettuce, tomato, a wedge of cheese and a dill pick— Oh! silly me, that’s a cheeseburger.

But alternatively a cheese sandwich can be beautifully simple. Consider the lonely Anatolian shepherd, a figure out of antiquity with his woollen cloak and untreated hypotension. See him withdraw a hard disc of unleavened bread from the folds of his cloak; see him withdraw a lump of hard cheese from some other folds of his cloak. See him combine them – and reflect that what you are witnessing is a way of making of a cheese sandwich which has remained unchanged for millennia, perhaps since the very first Anatolian grabbed a lactating ewe and rubbed its udder against some emmer wheat, so commencing the whole strange business we call civilisation.

About ten thousand years later, this phenomenon has bodied forth into the world we see about us: a society in which fortunes can be won or lost on the turn of a cheese toastie. One multimillionaire who owes his fortune in large part to an ability to dream up felicitous combinations of basic wheat and dairy products is Jamie Oliver. On his website, he discusses making a cheese sandwich with such oracular eloquence that, reading him, I felt I had a direct connection to some great prophet or otherwise holy man.

“A toasted cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing,” he writes, at once drawing our attention to the sheer wondrousness of God’s creation, “but I’m not messing about here – this is the ultimate one and it’s going to blow your mind.” Whoa! There it is – suddenly you’re in the presence of Ecclesiastes, half expecting Jamie to assert that, of the making of many cheese sandwiches, there is no end (which indeed is the case, especially if you’re taking young folk camping).

Instead, the man who has done more for Britain’s children than anyone since Lord Shaftesbury admonishes us in more exultant tones: “But there is a particular sequence of events that needs to happen in order to achieve the most ridiculously tasty, chomp-worthy sandwich.” In other words, the road of wisdom leads to the palace of excess, because: “Follow this recipe, and it will always make you feel good. It is also especially useful when you’re suffering from a light hangover. This is when the condiments – dolloped on to a side plate like a painter’s palette – really come into their own.”

Stirring stuff, which is why I’m getting up a subscription to replace Eros with a life-size nude statue of Jamie Oliver pointing a fondue fork towards the East End.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster