It’s hard to do something new, especially when lots of money is at stake, and as a result, movies are usually based not on observed life but on other movies. Romantic comedies follow strict conventions that don’t actually occur in reality, but do occur with great frequency in other romantic comedies. In real life, no one has ever walked into a dark house and shouted, “Hello? Is anyone there?” but it’s actually required by law that it happen in horror movies. Thrillers would be lost without serial killers, despite the fact that, going by the best information we have, there were only 61 serial killings between 2000 and 2009.
Probably because this guy has been in prison, right?
That’s not to say that this is entirely a bad thing. Quentin Tarantino has created a number of entertaining movies based on other movies. His take on World War II was so removed from reality that it imagined that Hitler could be killed by a lone assassin. In real life, the one (failed) attempt on Hitler’s life took a cabal of high-ranking Nazi officers with deep pockets and wide connections, as well as some military-grade explosives and a whole bunch of plotting to pull off. And it still wasn’t successful. But that’s not to say that Inglorious Bastards wasn’t fun to watch.
What’s really wrong with this trend is that movies based on other movies reinforce lazy generalizations about human behavior. We’ve been taught that people act a certain way, not by the way people actually act, but by the way movies show them acting. Movie behaviors become self-fulfilling prophecies — accepted wisdom — and they’re based on nothing but movies written by folks who don’t do a lot of research beyond poking around on Wikipedia. A few notable instances:
People Obey Authority – the latest Sundance sensation, COMPLIANCE, is about a guy who calls a fast food restaurant claiming to be a cop. He says he’s investigating one of its employees who might be a thief and he coerces her boss into interrogating, tormenting, and ultimately sexually humiliating the employee. Oh, the humanity! It’s just like that what’s-it-called experiment that guy did…that Milgram Experiment, right? Therefore lots of reviewers of COMPLIANCE have hastened to namedrop the Milgram Experiments (that you can read about here) in their reviews. The Milgram Experiments have become shorthand for “people will do horrible things to other people if someone in authority tells them to do it” but the actual experiments don’t really say that at all.
“Wait…there’s no science behind this movie?”
Milgram’s 1963 experiments were to see if subjects (known as “teachers”) would obey authority figures (“experimenters”) and continue to deliver an electric shock to an unseen “learner” no matter how much pain the learner reported. In the most famous iteration of these experiments, 65% of the teachers administered the largest, 450-volt shock, to learners who were unresponsive and, as far as they were concerned, possibly dead. The conclusion: authority figures can make people do horrible things that go against their own judgement. These results have been used as explanations for everything from the rise of Naziism, to storylines for independent movies. What most people conveniently ignore are the other experiments Milgram performed.
In 1974, Milgram published a book that contained the results of a previously unreported 19 other experiments he did along the same lines, in which he found that changing even one variable in his experiment had an enormous impact on its results. In experiments where the experimenter wasn’t in the room, but delivered instructions to teachers via telephone, compliance decreased to 21% – less than a third of his initial results. Changing how experimenters presented the study (ie, saying it was a commercial venture rather than a scientific study) lowered compliance further, and placing the teacher and the learner in the same room lowered compliance even more drastically. Most importantly, when an experimenter ORDERED a teacher to continue (for example, by saying, “You have no choice but to continue this experiment.”) compliance decreased to zero.
The Milgram Experiment layout.
So while it seems correct to say that in some situations people will obey authority past the point of doing harm to another person, the conditions in which these situations can be created are very specific. The chances that your boss at McDonald’s will force you to endure a humiliating quasi-sexual interrogation because someone claiming to be a cop is on the phone telling him to do so, is very, very, very low. (more on this at Radiolab)
Disaster Brings Out the Worst in People – in movies like The Road Warrior, Diary of the Dead, and the upcoming The Divide, when supplies run low and survival is at stake humans turn on one another like deranged lunatics. How many times have we seen this tagline on a movie or book, “But their greatest danger lies…within!” When the going gets tough people get paranoid and dangerous, according to nine billion horror movies and thrillers. Well, that’s just crap.
Over and over again, studies of how people actually function in disasters shows that we display a remarkable amount of altruism and cooperation when the chips are down. Survival situations don’t cause someone to whip out a gun and start hoarding food, or to go all paranoid and irrational. They don’t turn people into amoral vigilantes. They usually turn them into heroes. To me, this is a cliche that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s taken one of mankind’s greatest virtues — cooperation — and struck it off the menu of survival options and then, like a brainwashing experiment, we’re shown how our personalities will break down in stress situations over and over again. It’s even popped up in news reporting, when journalists bring us stories that turn out to be fake about marauding gangs rampaging through post-Katrina New Orleans and mass rapes in the Super-Dome. Johann Hari writes at length about this, saying that mankind’s tendency to help one another during a disaster is so widely-studied and reported that it’s now a bedrock fact:
“This is so cross-cultural — from Haiti to New Zealand — that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it’s not hard to see why. We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they — our ancestors — didn’t have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn’t be reading this now.”
Except there probably won’t be any.
Movies condition us to expect the worst from ourselves during crises, when in fact we should expect the angels of our better natures to manifest instead.
There Can Be Only One – since movies began, the idea that each of us has a soul mate somewhere out there has been the subject of countless romantic comedies. The problem is, this isn’t how choice, or marriage, seem to work. Numerous studies have shown that having too much choice often leads to depression and decision-making paralysis, challenging the idea that having a variety of choice leads to happiness. In fact, researchers are finding that choice is fine up to a point, but there is such a thing as too much choice which has a negative impact on happiness. This could apply as well to marriage. Studies have been done showing the difference between choice marriages and arranged marriages:
“…in 1982, psychologists Usha Gupta and Pushpa Singh of the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur ran a study comparing marriages of choice in the United States to arranged marriages in India. They found opposite trends: choice marriages experienced a lot of initial passion and little compassion thereafter while arranged marriages experienced no initial passion but increasing compassion as the years went on.”
Believe it or not, GIGLI was not very realistic.
There has been recent research that challenges these findings, but there has also been more recent research that supports them. It seems that choosing “the right person” may cause more anxiety and have less to do with longterm happiness, than choosing “a person” and committing to them. The verdict is still out, but given the wide range of romantic comedies out there, why do so many focus on finding one’s lifelong perfect partner and so few focus on making the relationship/marriage/what-have-you work with that partner?