Movies and television programs are always fun to watch and are great diversions, but they are never to be taken seriously. This is likely due to the fact that such fare intends foremost to entertain. In this context, then, artistic liberty takes precedence, even when the content claims to promote a sense of realism. Audiences, especially professional researchers, must always remember that point. Unless the research conducted pertains to entertainment, movies and television are not reliable resources for factual information.
That’s not to say that such media offer no valuable insight worthy of intellectual consideration. Frasier was a long-running television series known for its high-brow content dealing with real life issues and personal growth; yet it should be noted that the show was a comedy written and produced to entertain above all else. Viewers are wise not to depend on the show as an authority on psychiatry or to promote therapeutic treatment, though the insights shared do offer watchers an opportunity for personal reflection. Still, everyone should remember that this example serves as a means of artistic expression, not a professional or academic contribution to the behavioral sciences.
As for full-length features, films depicting historical events do not guarantee complete factually based content. The Titanic (one of my specialties, as my readers already know) is an ideal example. The actual event caught the world by storm in April of 1912. Over time, the ship and its story would achieve the status of legend. As a result, the tragedy has inspired no fewer than eight different cinematic incarnations, none of them conveying the reality to a point of indisputability. Yes, many aspects still remain unknown, spurring off personal interpretations that play a role in story progression. This is one reason why movies offer nothing beyond face value. Where gaps or uncertainties exist, filmmakers take artistic liberties for dramatic effect. This is even the case with established specifics (i.e. facts); filmmakers quite often initiate changes in certain details to enhance plot elements, such as suspense and intrigue. Numbers and rating are priority, not scholarly advancement.
Some argue that filmmakers, like James Cameron, conduct research for their historical pieces like Titanic. That is true, but Cameron’s purpose first and foremost is financial, as his films require a substantial return on the initial investment put into production, such as set creation, computer graphics and, of course, performer compensation. If this return is not met, the company loses money.
One must consider also the fictional aspects involved. The central characters of Jack and Rose in Titanic are a great example. Neither of these individuals ever existed, nor were they on board the Titanic. Creating fictional characters in their own fictional story allowed Cameron the means to spread his artistic wings and build suspense and drama as he saw fit, including the impossibility of a romance between a first-class and third-class passenger. Adolescents and young adults between 13 and 30 comprised the bulk of Cameron’s target audience, and so he needed to appeal to the idealism of those in this age range in order to draw them into the story. In doing so, he ensured the movie’s popularity, its eleven subsequent academy awards and the ongoing financial returns. The fiction of the project made this happen, not the reality of the actual event that had inspired it. Since Cameron foresaw this, his sense of artistic liberty superseded the research he conducted. His research served only to create a sense of realism without adhering to all the facts involved.
Other film genres are the same way. One common instance can be seen in science fiction. Futuristic movies that show explosions in space negate the fact that such fiery cataclysms require oxygen, which is not present in the vacuum of space. Therefore, such ignitions would be impossible. Yet the excitement that such an effect generates draws in paying audiences. Time travel movies as well offer cleanly knit plotlines where characters travel back into time to explore or right a wrong. This condition creates a paradox whereby a problem still exists even though the character(s) had eventually gone back to correct it. Movies like Back to the Future, Austin Powers and Star Trek First Contact are popular regardless of the holes and the answered questions that such holes generate. They do not correspond to the principles of Physics, but instead what sounds convincing to progress the plot twists or showcase the ‘glitz’ of future technological innovations. Despite their innovative cinematic conceptualizations, these films are meant to be nothing but escapist fare, although they do drive viewers to ponder the question: “What if . . .?”
The ironic twist behind such visuals is that they captivate the minds and imaginations of the audience. That quality serves as a double-edged sword, meaning that such effects intend to make the story compelling, yet attempt to convince the viewers that what they are experiencing is somehow palpable and genuine. This is where the role of the spectator emerges with regard to the characters and story.
That is not to say that movies and television can not or do not serve a viable role in the research process, as they do offer inspiration with regard to creating visual and auditory dimensions to the subject being researched; these depictions are assimilated into the greater body of research to assume the status of pieces to a larger puzzle, as long as they are utilized appropriately and only to the extent needed. No compilation of research on the Titanic would be complete without the many cinematic representations of the tragedy; something vital would be missing from the whole in their absence.
One exception to all of this is documentaries. These projects offer a well-concentrated focus on information pertaining to a particular subject of interest. After all, one of their purposes is to take enthusiasts on a journey of exploration by discussing any and all current information. Still, documentaries are not totally removed from the influence of the numbers; rating ensures broadcast and/or DVD sale priority, which comes before scientific promotion. Moreover, documentaries often reflect the perspective and/or agenda of the filmmakers, even when including expert or witness testimony.
Researchers must maintain a sense of objectivity when assessing movies or television shows and what they intend to do. These presentations are what they are and do have their place. As long as researchers are cognizant of this, they will be able to use such resources efficaciously.
Still, in the end, there is a compromise. The dichotomy between cinematic purview and research must always remained balanced, as should the conciliatory relationship between artistic license and realism. The tasks of justification and responsibility fall equally on both the researcher and the filmmaker.