The title may seem antithetical--going to the movies is one of the classic escapist forms of entertainment, a chance to leave the world behind and concentrate on the flickering screen in a darkened room--but the quality of genuineness is one of the key qualities which identify a well-made film, and the environment--high-intensity attention, extreme magnification--makes inauthenticity apparent.
I'm going to focus here on regular feature films, as distinguished from the documentaries, which are a distinguished art form, one I wouldn't claim to be qualified to criticize, and one with very different entertainment value. So, what I'm talking about are the made-up stories, or stories re-told, historical fiction, or the re-creation of human events.
It's not just whether a film is realistic, though that is an element of what I'm trying to analyze. Like published fiction, the audience has agreed provisionally to suspend disbelief for the duration of the experience, so it doesn't have to be quite real. Artistically, though, breaking stereotypes and going beyond stock characters and situations--"making it real", as they say in hiphop society-- have periodically been sources of renewal for movies, revitalizing the genres when the rules that govern them become too confining. That's an aspiration, not a universal one in film, but a creditable one.
So, granted we are talking about the movies' artificial world, what I'm expecting from a well-made production is the avoidance of fakery. This adds greatly to the cost of making films, but it is generally money well spent, in that the ticket-buying public expects a convincing simulation of reality. It is for this reason that movie productions go "on location"--sometimes to the place where the story is set, but, if not, to a place that, in key characteristics, resembles it sufficiently.
Seeking the Really Fake
Now, I want to discuss two exceptions to the general principle of seeking the best possible imitation of what is real. One is the intentional inclusion of anachronism, or of something--a prop, a location--that obviously does not fit the scene. This is a risky strategy and not advisable except for humorous or satiric pupose; there are few other cases in which it would make sense for movie creators to call attention to the fact that they have chosen not to make their art the most convincing they could.
To give an example from Cloud Atlas, a film I consider generally very commendable, one aspect that has been criticized has been excessive or poor use of makeup. I have only seen the film once--sadly, it has disappeared far too quickly in this season of rapid-fire releases--but there is one scene in which I would agree with that criticism: in the formal dinner scene which concludes the 1847 episode, two characters clearly stood out unfavorably: Halle Berry and Doona Bae made up in whiteface. There are reasons that was done--to complete the concept that the principal cast members would appear in all six episodes--but in this particular case it creates a jarring reaction, a rejection of the scene as being less than what it should be.
The other exception to the strategy I would note is the transformation of film into theater, placing the action on a stage. Blurring the boundary of reality with artifice through use of the motif of the play within the play, or the film being made within the film, is in itself beyond questioning because of the success it has found: it can create an ironic tone to comment on the nature of drama or of life itself, as its use often seeks to pose a profound comment on the fundamental relationship between drama and real life. Think of Hamlet, 8 1/2, or, to cite dramatic use of a play in a film, Barton Fink. Reduction of a movie to a play, though, is a more problematic technique, one that has been attempted (and sharply criticized) in the new release of Anna Karenina. I want to see the movie, and I hope I will enjoy it, but it seems to me to be a wrong-headed approach to the work of the great Russian novelist Tolstoy and his use of the great panorama of his vast country--perhaps it's an attempt to capture the claustrophobia of the heroine's situation. I have seen other movies that have tried this approach; I can't think of any that have been successful doing it (Synecdoche, New York, anyone? I can't say I've managed to watch it, though I've tried). This minimalistic technique basically is an artistic statement rejecting the desirability, maybe even the possibility, of a realistic approach; as I say, I don't get it.
Another film genre I can't "get" is the musical, whether comic, dramatic, or pure song-and-dance. Pure opera has something to say for itself, as it posits a figurative musical reality which represents the essence of the mundane prosaic one, but all those stories where the dialogue stops and the characters break into song, or song-and-dance, are just too absurd for me to accept, even if the singing isn't dubbed and the music somehow fits the story. (Music soundtracks in movies are another topic, and one that I can't criticize effectively; I will say that an effective musical soundtrack must either enhance the storytelling by reflecting the interior emotions of the characters--addressing one of the great weaknesses of movies vs. books--or be totally lost within it, subtly framing the dialogue or action.) West Side Story is an example of the kind of disjointed fakey reality that bothers me; even though made with superior production, it is a fake that is only partly redeemed by the classical beauty of its Romeo and Juliet story and a little bit--not much, mind you--of reality intruding into the movie's artificial New York City of longing and songing. The new movie version of Les Miserables seeks to somehow make musical drama more realistic through hand-held camera work--adding a stylistic veneer of realism to a fakey form of rendering the original gritty, historically-based real-life drama.
When Unreality Needs Little Excuse
Science fiction is a special case, in that, for most of it, there is no objective reality to which the movie's created reality can be compared (an exception would be prehistoric drama--something like 1,000,000 B.C.--and its unfortunate tendency to have unintentional anachronism). In science fiction, the test of authenticity is usually whether--given the scenario--the action, the visual effects, and the dialogue are convincingly real. In this regard, the Cloud Atlas scenes from a futuristic Korea ("Corporea", in the book) are a highlight of the film. Avatar had, to me, several ludicrous premises to its story having to do with unrealistic aspects of a human society capable of interstellar travel, but once immersed in it, the look and feel--and the stubborn atavism of many of the human characters--were effective and believable. About Blade Runner, one could say much of the same: the whole notion of the androids created and living beyond human contact with built-in expiration dates seemed unrealistic, but if one accepted that, much of the behavior, the earthbound environment, the neo-noir storytelling, all made so much sense. Fantasy movies enjoy the same freedom of divorce from reality, but the same strictures of being true to their rules of engagement, thus the success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings in faithfully re-creating its unreal world.
But then there are the stories that are just too far over the top, whether science fiction or just totally unrelated to any world we know or could know. The ones that, if one of them could only have happened, would have been the most amazing event in the history of humanity, greater in magnitude, import, and all-out achievement than the Bible's Greatest Story Ever Told. Their stories are legion--think of almost any Will Smith movie of recent years (I am Legend, Independence Day, Hancock, even his Wild Wild West), Nicholas Cage, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Bond, etc. Bond movies at least have the cover story of secrecy as to why these incredible exploits are unknown to us in the real world. In other words, I have a little trouble taking this kind of pure escapism seriously, which is why I love a movie like District 9, which uses a fake documentary style and incredible events to poke fun at the genre. Then there are the horror stories, the splatter flicks, vampires, zombies, etc. which fundamentally rely upon being totally unrealistic for their entertainment value: if they had any component that seemed at all realistic, they would be unendurable.
Even Better than the Real Thing
Finally, though, there are the movies that strive to tell real stories, and to do it in a way that feels real. In this, we allow the director the artistic license to enhance reality, because it makes the storytelling tolerably interesting, as long as the condensation of the storyline does not distort it excessively. Argo is a very interesting story based on a real, little-known caper, and most of it was well told. The locations--in Turkey, not Iran--seemed realistic, there is plenty of authenticity in the story, and even much of the Hollywood angle has its truth to it. Unfortunately, the movie goes off the rails at its climax, with an unrealistic car-chasing-plane scene which has no fundamental basis in the true story.
As much as I criticize Steven Spielberg for his emotional manipulation and his willingness to engage in escapist fantasy (E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones), he is a master of the art of telling true stories in a convincing way. In this regard, I cite Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and Schindler's List, and now I have to say that he has outdone himself with Lincoln. With the assistance of extensive research, a superb screenplay by Tony Kushner, and a brilliant cast, headed by a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis so great that, like War Secretary Edwin Stanton's comment upon the moment of Lincoln's death, it "now...belongs to the ages", Spielberg has told a story that fools the viewer into the feeling that it is the real thing in every way. With Spielbergian manipulative power, he swept me into the world of 1865 Washington D.C. from the first scene to the end. Only when I saw it a second time could I see the artistry of his craft, and I encourage all to view it--repeatedly.
I refer to my previous prediction that the over-under bet for Oscars for the movie is seven. For me, that Lincoln should win Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Picture are absolute certainty, no matter what the competition may be; I'd say it should also contend for 5-10 more: Supporting Actor (David Straitharn or Tommy Lee Jones, if they don't cancel each other's chances out), Best Actress (Sally Field should be nominated, at least), Best Director (maybe not), Music, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes, Film Editing, and Makeup.
There is, however, a movie that is rumored to have a real chance of topping Lincoln for Best Picture. * It's the only thing that could beat the real thing, a true story of great importance like that in Lincoln: a story about something real, important, and, better for box office, contemporary, but enhanced way beyond what is real for the purpose of storytelling. I'm referring to Zero Dark Thirty, in which Kathryn Bigelow apparently has once again shown the talent for doing just what she accomplished so well in The Hurt Locker, now applied to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The inverse of my description of horror films above, the intensity of Hurt Locker is beyond what can be endured, except that it has that moral urgency which comes from that relevance. Not being in the privileged fraternity of movie critics or insiders, I haven't seen it, but I think the Oscar race for Best Picture could end up being a classic battle between what is real, but old, and what is now, but even more than real.
*And it's about even with Lincoln in the odds on Intrade--which recently decided to boot off systematically all the illegal American accounts it used to wink at. I hope I can at least still get on--they claim they will have a new, legal form for Americans to participate.