Fact or fiction, sad movies have same effects

By Sarah Lavers, News Correspondent

Joel Marsh said he hardly ever cries during movies, but ‘Milk’ brought him close to tears.
Released last month, the film follows the real-life political rise and tragic fall of Harvey Milk in the ’70s. Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, and less than a year after he was named to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he was assassinated.
While the story is fact, the production is, by default, fiction:’ ‘ Sean Penn takes the place of Harvey Milk, and Emile Hirsch plays his protege, Cleve Jones.
For Marsh, a freshman communications studies major, that made a bit of a difference.
‘It’s definitely a different kind of sadness when you know the movie isn’t real,’ he said. ‘I still know in my heart, no matter how hard the actors are portraying the emotions, they aren’t actually feeling them.’
But according to a recent study, more often than not, moviegoers will feel as sad watching a fictional film as they do watching a documentary.
Conducted by Thalia Goldstein, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College, the study proved that whether a film is fact or fiction has little bearing on the amount of sadness viewers report to experience when watching.
For the study, Goldstein asked a group of 59 young adults to report their levels of sadness and anxiety after watching a clip from the 1970 movie ‘Love Story’ ‘- known for its quote, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’
Half of the group was told the story was fact, and the other half, fiction.’ Despite this, members of both camps reportedly felt the same level of sadness.
Goldstein said her inspiration for the study was rooted in the scandal surrounding ‘A Million Little Pieces,” by James Frey:’ ‘The man who conned Oprah,’ according to an article on TheSmokingGun.Com titled ‘A Million Little Lies.’
Posited as a memoir, Frey’s book soared to No. 1 on Amazon.com and the New York Times Bestsellers List in 2005 after Oprah Winfrey added it to her book club roster.
The book gained a different kind of notoriety when it proved to contain many embellishments and a number of utter fabrications, despite being described on the publisher’s website as an ‘uncommonly genuine account.’
Public reaction to this expose was unrelenting as readers, who felt betrayed and misled, demanded their money back. To use Winfrey’s phrase, there was a sense the public had been ‘duped’ into believing a fictional account was factual.
Goldstein and her advisor, Professor Ellen Winner, said they were intrigued by this overwhelming response and sought to understand differences in emotional reactions to fact and fiction. Through the use of film clips, they found that labeling a movie ‘fiction’ has little effect on the intensity of sadness evoked in a viewer.
‘Fiction is really used as a way to practice social interaction,’ said Goldstein, whose research focuses on social cognitive development and the study of emotional regulation.
But as this study shows, humans have a tendency to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, she said, when acting is confused with real life. Sadness levels remained the same regardless of the authenticity of the plot, she said.
Editing, choice of music and camera angles are just a few aspects of the art of movie-making that aim to evoke a particular response from the viewer, said David Grotell, a film professor and director. A filmmakers’ primary intent is to manipulate the audience’s feelings, he said. He also admitted that ‘it is harder [now] to get an audience to cry than ever before.’
Of course, the way a movie is made is not the only factor of influence. Goldstein and Winner’s study also showed that relatable personal experience plays a major role ‘- especially in feelings of anxiety. Anxiety was more prevalent and more intense among participants who could personally recall an experience that mimicked the action in the film than those who could not.
Middler Lee Tirell, a behavioral neuroscience major, singled out Schindler’s List, a Steven Spielberg film set during WWII and the reign of Nazi Germany, as a film that evoked a notable emotional response in him.
‘Probably because it was about the Holocaust and I’m part Jewish,’ he said. ‘It kinda hit close to home.’

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