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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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear