When we watch a movie, we expect to be swept away from the here and now and transported into a gripping story. That’s what we pay for. Through lighting, camera angle, movement, acting, and editing, filmmakers have developed extraordinary ways of driving our attention and instilling potent emotions along the way. Many if not most Hollywood movies reveal the plot in a way that keeps us minimally aware of the filmmaking process. In fact, if we were to become conscious of watching a movie, then the spell would be broken, and we'd find ourselves out of the story and back in the movie theater or sitting on our couch. Movie magic is in large part the ability of the filmmaker to keep us psychologically within the context of the movie.

            Two of this year’s Academy Award nominees, Selma and The Imitation Game, offer the kind of experience that sucks us into an incredibly emotional tale. The fact that these two films are based on true stories, makes these plots even more gripping and realistic. In Selma, we follow Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1965 initiative to march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, for equal voting rights. In our minds, the actor David Oyelowo is the civil rights leader, and King’s plight comes alive through his performance. Similarly, in The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing, the computer scientist who helped break the German’s secret “Enigma” code during World War II, is stunning as we lose ourselves in the drama. Both movies excel because the story is told in such a seamless and captivating manner.

            Interestingly, two other Academy Award nominees, Boyhood and Birdman, make us excruciatingly aware that we are watching a movie. In many ways, these two deserving nominees lift the filmmaking process to the same level of importance as the story itself. In film theory parlance, these movies put the two pillars of art, form and content, on equal footing. In this manner the movies become movies about movies or "meta-art." That is, rather than focusing solely on the plot (i.e., the content), Boyhood and Birdman are statements about how movies are made (i.e., the form). In Boyhood, director Richard Linklater filmed the actors over a 12-year period so that as the characters age in the drama, the actors themselves age. At moments while watching the movie we step out of the drama and appreciate the fact that we are watching actors over a time span not ever before accomplished within the context of a single movie. The same movie could have been made without this unique time scale by having different actors portray the main character as he aged and applying makeup to artificially age the adult actors. Yet I’ve spoken with many who have enjoyed the movie, and all have stated that the greatness of the movie is in how it was made. Thus, in Boyhood, awareness of the movie-making process increases its aesthetic value (see my earlier post for a more detailed analysis of this fine movie).

            In the quirky movie, Birdman, Michael Keaton plays a has-been superhero actor who is attempting to stage a play in New York. The movie’s theme focuses on the distinction between highly commercial Hollywood blockbusters and highly intellectual New York Theater performances. It also makes statements about the distinction between art and reality. The fun, formal aspects are the ways these themes are played out. Most obvious is that the entire movie has the look of being filmed as a single shot with the camera moving with the characters. Extended camera shots are particularly noticeable these days as most films include an inordinate number of film cuts—typically between 1000 and 2000 edits. Of course, a theatrical play is performed and viewed as one “take.”  There are also fun moments that blend the story with our expectations of how movies are made. For example, from the beginning of the film the soundtrack is largely a wonderfully syncopated drum solo that we hear throughout the movie. However, on two occasions rather than just being a soundtrack, we actually see a drummer in the scene playing the rhythm. In this case, what we assume to be the movie-making technique of soundtrack music (or what film theorists call non-diegetic sound) is suddenly in the realm of the story's plot (diegetic sound). Such techniques have been used in the past to create a mood or blur the distinction between reality and art. Birdman includes these techniques in a fun, refreshing manner. Another “meta-art” feature of the film is having Michael Keaton in the role of the main character, as he himself played a superhero in Tim Burton’s Batman flicks over 20 years ago.

          If you find it interesting that the movie-making process itself is placed at the same level as the story, you might enjoy Birdman (or perhaps think that these “art about art” techniques are rather overdone).  If you are only interested in the plot (i.e., content), you might not “get it” or find the techniques a distraction from the drama. Another question is to what extent does one’s enjoyment of Birdman depend upon the fact that it is Michael Keaton playing the role. With Birdman, form and content blend and intermix to the point that one’s enjoyment cannot be divided between the movie’s plot and how the movie was made.

          As with all of our art experiences, our movie-going experience is best when we are carried away by the story but also appreciate the filmmaking process itself. Sometimes, such as in Selma or The Imitation Game, the formal aspects may be so smoothly produced that we are fully engaged in the magical experience of being in a drama. For other movies, such as Boyhood and Birdman, we appreciate as much the movie-making process as we do the telling of the story. In fact, at times during these two movies, we take ourselves out of the plot, break the magic spell, and think about how movies are made. I would be pleased if any of these four movies wins the Oscar for Best Picture. My personal favorite would be Selma, as I believe every human being should watch this movie for the story it portrays.

About the Author

Arthur Shimamura, Ph.D.

Arthur P. Shimamura, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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