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 see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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