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What's the Difference Between Film and Reality?

Your brain isn't so sure, according to Jeffrey M. Zacks' new book Flicker.
(Photo: stuckincustoms/Flickr)

(Photo: stuckincustoms/Flickr)

Earlier this year I gave a talk to a college class about Wonder Woman, superheroes, and gender. The class was mostly engaged and interested—especially when they found out, to their mixed outrage and amusement, that I rather like Twilight. But toward the end, one student raised her hand and said, loosely paraphrased: "Why are we talking about this nonsense? Superhero films are just fictional entertainment that you're supposed to sit back and enjoy. Why overthink it?"

That's a response you get a lot when you write about pop culture—or any culture, really. What's the point of discussing racism in Lovecraft, or violence in action movies? Shouldn't we focus instead on real racism, or real violence, rather than talking about fictional representations which, by definition, aren't real?

Sometimes these protests seem aimed at avoiding the conversation—people often have ideological reasons for not wanting to talk about sexism, and/or (perhaps like the student I spoke to) may just not be interested in critical approaches to entertainment. But still, the question remains: Does it make sense to criticize fiction in terms of real-world issues?

Getting history wrong in Hollywood affects how people see real history, which can have an effect on how they see the present.

Critic Isaac Butler, in a thoughtful and focused article, makes a strong argument that, at least in some cases, it does not. Butler is responding to a trend in criticism which he calls "the realism canard." The realism canard is the idea that fiction should be fact-checked, that the critic's job is to look at a film and point out the ways in which it fails to conform to reality. A critic working from the realism canard might point out that (contra Star Wars) you can't hear explosions in space, or that (contra Orange Is the New Black) prisons do not systemically dump ill inmates on the streets through misguided compassionate release programs. "What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work's purposes,” he writes. “It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure of The Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works toward the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them."

Again, Butler's point here is narrowly aimed at a particular kind of fact-checking. Butler himself has written astute criticism (at the blog I edit, among other places) about topics such as the political failings of V for Vendetta. He's not demanding (as the student was) that we stop altogether using real-world rubrics to think about fiction. But it's easy to see how his argument could end up leading in that direction. If the main criteria for The Hunger Games is whether "the world works toward the purposes of the novel," how can you get traction to criticize the way the novel both disavows and revels in the spectacle of violence? If hyperbolic atrocities against children work toward the purposes of the novel, what grounds are there for criticizing it if you rule out references to real-world violence?

JEFFREY M. ZACKS' NEW book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, provides some surprising answers to the problem of criticism in general and the realism canard in particular. Zacks is a neuroscientist whose research focuses on studying what happens in your brain when you watch movies. One of his most provocative discussions in Flicker focuses on the relationship between memory and film.

Butler's objection to the realism canard is based on the idea that reality and fiction are separate. This is obviously, even definitionally, true; fiction isn't real. But while you know that, and I know that, Zacks presents strong evidence that our brains aren't always so sure. He points to a recent psychological study by Andrew Butler (no relation to Isaac) in which test subjects were asked to read accurate historical essays and then watch Hollywood movies about the periods discussed in the non-fiction pieces. As is often the case with Hollywood, many of the movies distorted history substantially. For example, the Civil War film Glory presented the 54th black Massachusetts regiment as composed mostly of slaves, even though the actual regiment was made up almost entirely of Northern freemen.

So did the psychological subjects fall prey to the realism canard, and start fact-checking the Hollywood films willy nilly? Nope. Instead, they confused history and fact. According to Zacks:

A surprising number of [the movie's historical] distortions stuck with viewers when their memory was tested shortly thereafter. Even though they had read the right answer in the essay, viewers were willing to accept about 40% of the distortions as true. It didn't matter much whether they watched the movie before or after reading the essays.

"These studies probably underestimate how influential bad information in historical movies can be, because most of the time when you watch a history flick you do not read an accurate history just before or after," Zacks adds. If Glory presents the 54th as being composed of former slaves, the likelihood is that many of those who see the film are going to believe that the 54th was composed of former slaves. In the film, that makes the motive of most of the soldiers revenge rather than justice; it downplays the existence of free blacks, in favor of seeing slavery as the quintessential experience of all African-Americans. It emphasizes the distance between white officers like Robert Shaw and his troops rather than recognizing that, historically, both would have moved within the same abolitionist circles—Frederick Douglass' sons were in the regiment. Getting history wrong in Hollywood affects how people see real history, which can have an effect on how they see the present.

Why do people have such trouble distinguishing fact and fiction? The answer, Zacks argues, is that our brains are model-building machines. "The hard-core version of the model-building account," he explains, "says that when we understand a story just by reading it, we fire off the same neural systems that we use to build models of the real world." Zacks tried to validate this model by using fMRI scanning while people watched films—and what he discovered was that when, for example, a character on screen reaches for an object, the fMRI showed activity in the area corresponding to motor hand control. Because of these and related experiments, Zacks is convinced that "memories of our lives and memories of stories have the same shape because they are formed by the same mechanisms." He concludes: "It is not the case that you have one bucket into which you drop all the real-life events, another for movie events, and a third for events in novels." Your model-building brain "is perfectly happy to operate on stuff from your life, from a movie, or from a book."

That's "a big part of the appeal of narrative films and books," Zacks argues. "[T]hey appeal to our model-building propensities." But it's also why we have trouble separating out what's real and what's fiction. Human brains use models to understand reality, and it doesn't matter whether the model is labeled "fiction" or "fact.”

RATHER THAN SEEING FICTION as simply entertainment, separated out from reality, then, it makes more sense to see works of fiction as models of this world, the real world, the one world we've got. Of course, the dragon in The Hobbit isn't meant to indicate that dragons are real—part of the fun of building models is thinking about "what ifs" and imagining what could or couldn't work. But The Hobbit is still a model about (for example) how greed works, when violence is worthwhile or ennobling, what you do with monsters, whether it's more fun and virtuous to sit at home or to go on exciting adventures, and what guys get to do and girls don't.

It's not a category failure to criticize The Hobbit because it has almost no women in it, while the real world is composed of about half women. Rather, noting the lack of women in The Hobbit is a way to criticize a particular model of the world, in which men are represented as important presences, and women are ignorable background. And even the kind of fact-checking Butler bristles at seems like it has a place. If Orange Is the New Black presents false information about compassionate release, then that's not just a fictional trope used to move the story; it's a model of the world that (Zacks' experiments suggest) can affect how people think about it. People have trouble sorting out what models are true and which are not. Providing them with factoids to alert them to falsehoods may not be the highest form of criticism, but it serves a real and legitimate purpose.

Flicker argues that, in big ways and small, art affects us. It influences our memories, our beliefs—even, Zacks argues convincingly, our willingness to use violence. Art is a product of our brains thinking about the world. This means that talking about art is not a distraction from talking about reality, but, instead, addressing reality itself.