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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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