Reel Therapy is Solomon’s second book on the subject; six years ago he wrote The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning (Aslan), and he claims to have coined the term “cinematherapy.” Several books by other authors followed the basic idea (Cinematherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Movies for Every Mood by Nancy K. Peske and Beverly West; Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning by John W. Hesley and Jan G. Hesley), which is that movies are the surest way for the patient to see the doctor’s larger, more relevant points. Solomon writes in the introduction to Reel Therapy about the crucial “suspension of disbelief” that viewers easily bring to movies, which mirrors the all-important “denial” that patient and doctor struggle to identify in modern therapy. Solomon cautions against Nora Ephron–style fixes that clock in under two hours, but nonetheless, Sleepless in Seattle might speed up the diagnosis. (Yes, Meg Ryan again, the apparent queen of cinematherapy.)
Solomon, who says he watches five or six movies a week at home (having forsaken the theatergoing experience, where noise and rudeness from fellow audience members brought him to a breaking point), is no discriminating cineaste: Following his cure will mean you may have to watch movies that you forgot even existed but your local Blockbuster has remembered, such as For Keeps and Jack the Bear and Awakenings and The Other Side of the Mountain (the last one nearly cured me of snow skiing). Like some kind of Leonard Maltin conducting a couples’ retreat, Solomon describes the “healing themes” in each of the films he recommends: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s reminds us that people can have their fantasy life if they choose . . .”; “Use Nell as a way to begin your healing. Open up and learn to communicate about your experiences, the ones that are holding you back from growing and being a true part of the world.” It won’t be long before the good doctor has you seeing yourself, to quote speech-impaired Nell, as “a tayay inna win,” and of course you’re thinking, Whaaa?, which is exactly what you thought when you saw Nell the first time.
Solomon has cut his practice back to focus on writing and teaching, but he claims that cinematherapy was successful for many of his patients. The book, however, cannot help but devolve into that highly marketable and ultimately dumbed-downed realm of self-help. It’s a symptoms/cures catalog, handily divided into sublists at the end. For co-dependency alone, there are 90 movies to slog through, from Leaving Las Vegas (also cross-reffed under “alcohol” and “death/dying”) to the Streisand version of A Star Is Born to the widely unseen Julia Roberts flop Mary Reilly. “How well a movie does at the box office usually has little to do with its healing value . . . Be patient with this film. It’s not easy to comprehend,” Solomon writes. “[Mary Reilly] is a recovery jewel that will help some of you gain insight into the devastating effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family.” Or having to work for a dysfunctional boss — in Mary’s case, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
What if, I’m thinking, a patient doesn’t want to watch Mary Reilly? How would Solomon effectively treat vaguely neurotic, complicated people who don’t have the patience to watch, much less discuss, crappy and unprofitable movies? (For instance, half of Los Angeles, which must summon a particular denial in having helped create Mary Reilly to be able to use it for transference.) “I haven’t had that problem,” Solomon says. “I think there is such an eclectic choice of movies that offer good therapy value. I can’t be concerned with [the patient’s] taste. And anybody who has made their way to therapy has lost their snobbery, I would think, at least for a while.” But why not be concerned with the patient’s taste? Solomon’s mushy descriptions of the movies he recommends (and why) make me think I’d be a terrible cinematherapy patient, for the simple reason that I never could believe in Julia Roberts as a hooker or a chambermaid or a muckraking legal aide. This is not to say I don’t adore Julia. I just don’t see her as a blueprint for living —it would be like getting love-life advice from the head cheerleader. It’s also curious, to me, as a wary patient, that among Solomon’s recommendations there are no horror movies. He says they don’t have much in the way of healing themes; I say they’re jam-packed with all sorts of talking points: fear, victimization, bad fate, perseverance and, my particular favorite, anxiety attacks.
I do like the way Solomon has sometimes recommended foreign films to his patients, who are startled to learn that not all movies have happy, test-marketed endings. Most of the movies on his lists are consumer-friendly and multiplexable. Mainstream films, through test screenings, have already sort of been through “reel” therapy, their issues discerned, their problem areas and personalities medicated with the proper dosages to make them pleasing enough company for the rest of the world. “Sometimes a patient will come back and say, ‘Why did you make me watch that movie?’” Solomon says. “From a therapeutic point of view, even that reaction can be very informative about the patient, in terms of their broad frame of thinking.”