In the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, the entire story depicts two men meeting at a restaurant and having a conversation. Just two guys talking about themselves for 110 minutes, all in the same scene—no flashback sequences, no emotional outbursts, no getting up to use the bathroom. Does it sound like something you’d want to see? (It’s actually become somewhat of a cult film because of its deliberate attempt at minimalism.)
Although it makes for an unusual movie, the situation it depicts is very ordinary. We’ve all had conversations with another person over a meal, many that have stretched beyond a couple hours. But as engrossing as these conversations were to us, they wouldn't make great film.
The point is this: No matter how realistic a situation may be, the foremost principle of drama in films is action—there needs to be something going on. Characters have to translate their thoughts and feelings into actions the audience can see. Two guys sitting and exchanging stories is probably the bare minimum that would work, and those stories had better be mesmerizing.
All this leads to my main thesis: Films that try to portray people’s lives today will find it harder and harder to present a realistic picture of our experiences.
This is because in our real lives, we’re spending a greater proportion of our time doing things that don’t translate well to film: more of our social interactions and our emotions occur in the virtual world while we look at a computer screen. These experiences are rarely shown in film, because they’re simply not interesting, there’s no action to them. Imagine showing a dinner conversation between two guys in an online chat room, typing messages back and forth for two hours while they eat their own food in different locations. This would be mind-numbing. Even when characters are shown having a phone conversation, this is unsatisfying to watch; this goes triple for a conversation based on typing to one another.
In contrast, the characters we see on screen spend a lot of time moving around, pursuing something or being pursued, and have a lot of face-to-face interactions with others. This is a far cry from how most people spend their time in reality, unless you happen to be a police officer or a politician.
Maybe the difficulty of portraying a realistic, interesting version of modern living helps explain why science fiction, fantasy, and animation films have become the most popular genres at the box office over the past decade. These provide exciting alternative worlds where there is more action.
When it comes to historical fiction, watching a film like Titanic, or episodes of Mad Men, can give us a sense of what is was like to live in bygone eras. But trying to capture today's experience in the same way will leave out the very hallmark of modern life—immersion in the digital and virtual worlds—because it's too boring to show someone doing it.