Friday, February 15, 2013

Based on a "True" Story: Expecting Reality in Movies

This entry also appears on the Oxford University Press blog site.

     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. They come to Earth to enlist Cmdr. 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 empathize 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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Watching Movies for the First Time: What Does It Take?

     On December 28, 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of one of the first movie projectors, held their premiere public showing at which 33 Parisians paid one franc to watch ten short clips, each depicting simple activities, such as a couple feeding their baby or men playing cards (view the clips on YouTube). Despite the novelty of seeing moving images, these single-shot "recordings" were easily recognized. Indeed, psychological studies have confirmed that individuals who have never before seen movies can interpret the actions presented in single-shot film clips and even clips with simple edits (e.g., transitions that maintain the spatial frame). Yet the Hollywood blockbusters we watch today can contain as many as two thousand individual shots that are joined together to produce what one might imagine would be a perceptually jarring experience, particularly for one who has never seen a movie. When we watch a movie, however, the thousands of shot transitions are hardly noticeable. Is the seamless nature of film editing based on natural transitions of actions or does it depend on a familiarity of the "language" of film editing?

     In an interesting psychological study, Schwan & Indari (2010) went to a remote village in Turkey where electricity was not available and studied individuals who had never before seen a movie. Fifteen clips were shown (on a laptop), which contained common editing transitions, though ones that included perceptual discontinuities: 1) establishing shots in which a long (wide angle) shot is used to set the spatial setting prior to a close-up shot, 2) external to internal point of views (POVs) in which a character is shown outside, such as walking toward his home, and the next shot presents the character's viewpoint once inside (e.g., a view of the hallway), 3) cross-cutting in which disparate shots move between two different events to show that they are occurring at the same time, 4) ellipses, where time jumps ahead between two disparate shots, such as a shot in a kitchen and then one in the dining room, 5) shot/reverse shots, common during dialogue scenes as when successive "over-the-shoulder" shots move with the conversation of two characters, and 6) pan moves, which involve camera pans (not actually edits) that move from one person to another. All of the clips presented events and actions that would be familiar to the villagers had they been seen in real life. After viewing a clip, they were asked to say what the film showed. The same task was given to individuals living in another Turkish village who had prior exposure to movies. 

     The results showed that individuals with no prior movie experience had extreme difficulty interpreting the clips, particularly external to internal POVs, establishing shots, shot/reverse shots and ellipses. When asked to describe the clips, these naïve viewers could not link the actions of one shot to the next. All of these transitions would be obvious to us and were well understood by the Turkish villagers who had prior familiarity with movies. Interestingly, cross-cuts were understood by naïve viewers, even though at first blush it would seem like a rather difficult transition to follow as two disparate events are presumed to be occurring at the same time. This edit, however, was the only one that didn't require an understanding that a lapse of time had occurred across edits.  It appears that these naïve viewers had difficulty understanding that film edits often express jumps in time. One might expect other time-based editing techniques, such as fades or dissolves, which are used to indicate that an extended time has passed, or blurry images (and perhaps harp music) to indicate a flashback, would be even more difficult to interpret as these indicators seem to be particularly arbitrary conventions.

     Through countless movies and TV dramas, we have become so accustomed to editing techniques that we hardly notice them. Some edits, particularly those that maintain the spatial setting, are likely based on natural perception and are easily interpreted. For others, through repeated exposures, we have become fluent with the "grammar" of film editing. Like other skill-based abilities that we have acquired (driving, reading, sports skills), we are now so familiar with editing techniques that they proceed in an unconscious manner. What is hard to appreciate now, and what the Schwan and Indira study shows, is that our ability to comprehend movies is in part a learned experience, which has been gained through many hours of watching them.