I used to go to therapy a little bit, and around the same time I watched Aliens, on video, a lot. The 1986 sequel, the heavy-handed James Cameron one, so taut and loud and packed with Jungian heroine-mother archetypal hoo-hah. It’s great bananas for a hypersensitive gorilla like me, plus it’s got that whole disease-infestation creepiness, which seemed so easily analogous to my sex life then — all that dangerous seed and viscosity, those sweaty jarhead Marines.
I would watch it when I wasn’t happy with my own life, so for a while I was watching it once a week or so. Sometimes I would finish it, rewind it and watch it over again, the way a 3-year-old watches Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and the way Mommy allows it for her own peace of mind. Aliens gave me this odd feeling of strength — bitch strength. It’s about facing something. I particularly like the conference room scene, early in the film, where Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, tries to convince a bunch of bottom-line corporate types that the alien threat is real: “Goddamn it, that’s not all! Because if just one of those things manages to get down here, then all this, this bullshit” — here she starts throwing computer printouts around — “that you think is so important — well, you can just kiss all that goodbye!”
I would love to do that in a meeting. Throwing papers and saying words like bullshitis exactly the kind of thing they try to discourage in management-training seminars, because management training tries so hard to use the language of contemporary psychology to smooth things over at work. Conflict in almost any form is a potential Human Resources nightmare, but Aliens teaches us to disobey groupthink. Alas, in the corporate park, no one can hear you scream.
But movies scream so we don’t have to. If you’ve got a problem, friend, the movies have been there. The people who run psychiatric hospitals have for years enjoyed the handy way Movie Nite helps patients pass time, relax and think about their problems in a context beyond the interior buzz of their own minds. Really, all anyone wants from a film is the joy of momentary catharsis — the primal-screaming part that hurts so good.
Filmgoers have been self-medicating this way since the medium was invented. I once spent a few weeks interviewing people who went to movies by themselves, at multiplexes, on weekdays, for a story about . . . about a kind of loneliness, I guess. Waiting for a matinee of that moment’s Meg Ryan movie — 1995’s French Kiss, in which panic-attacked Meg jets to France to stalk her boyfriend, but hijinks land her in the oafy, Pepe Le Pew arms of Kevin Kline instead — I met a woman who told me exactly why she was sneaking off to the movies instead of working: It was Meg as ideal as Meg could be. She travels, her hair is cute, she winds up in cafés with quaintly distressed walls. The woman told me the only place she herself had ever traveled to was Cozumel, and it wasn’t much fun. She was convinced that the escapism of the movie would bring her mood up, for a day or two, put some things in proper perspective, perhaps lead her to some inner Meg. “One for French Kiss,” she told the ticket lady behind the box-office glass, and disappeared into the air-conditioned darkness. I replayed her words in my head — one for French kiss, one for French kiss. What a profound way of describing it, the insistent, indescribable “it” that sends so many of us to therapy.
Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, takes in a movie a day as a way of confronting the universal biggies. I used to wonder if Percy was presenting this film fix as a vice or a virtue. It doesn’t seem like Binx is using the movies to get away so much as to give himself even more to think about, more solutions to the way relationships can play out.
Virtue, then. Here is Gary Solomon, Ph.D., professor at the Community College of Southern Nevada, with his new book, Reel Therapy: How Movies Inspire You To Overcome Life’s Problems. It is just that — a prescriptive video guide.
Solomon, who is 53 and has the gently cool, kind voice that I have come to demand in HMO mental-health counselors (I also demand, if they are male, that they have salt-and-pepper beards and framed posters of the Brooklyn Bridge in their offices and no gurgling Zen tranquillity fountains), explained his approach when I called him on a recent Friday morning: “You’ve heard the expression ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’? A movie, then, is worth trillions of words. I have been saying for years that we need to stop using films as entertainment only. They are very useful in our emotional lives, and we become very invested in what we’re seeing and how it may apply to our own lives . . . Even the government is now using Traffic as an educational film.”