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.”
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.”
The doctor believes he is on to something, and in a way it’s hard to disagree. The average insurance plan will cover a few months of therapy, at best, but as long as you pay late fees, your Hollywood Video card will always be there for you. Therapists must grow weary of recommending that patients read William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Why not pick a movie instead? Just look at our houses now — the fetishizing of the home theater, the DVDs with THX SurroundSound. Solomon tells me he thinks a Cinematherapy Channel would be a big hit; I think American Movie Classics is already being used as a kind of regressive drug therapy.
In the vaunted, required-viewing-for-all-smarties The Sopranos, there is even cinematherapy vérité: Tony Soprano’s shrink, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), now spills her own problems to Dr. Elliott Kupferberg (Peter Bogdanovich). But no one, upon reflection, does cinematherapy better than the bearded, sensitive duo of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. They invented the form in the 1980s with the TV series thirtysomething, which dealt with so many issues and feelings that it forced half the nation into complete ookiness (while the other half watched). They followed that in the 1990s with My So-Called Life, which featured a delicious smorgasbord of teen and adult hangups. Now, with Once and Again on Wednesday nights and Traffic (which they produced) in movie theaters, Herskovitz and Zwick are building toward crescendo: Every moment is meant to make you feel like a participant instead of a mere observer. Sela Ward, in reflective, black-and-white moments on Once and Again, speaks to the camera like it’s a therapist. This was still not enough: Zwick himself has taken on a recurring role in the show, as a salt-and-pepper-bearded therapist, Dr. Rosenfeld, who counsels a teenage character with an eating disorder. Zwick nods and listens, and when he speaks, it’s with the smart, comfy voice of God. I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I now know what to watch to get through one. (Dr. Solomon, on the other hand, recommends Fatso, starring Dom DeLuise.)
Before we finish, I tell Solomon, quickly, as a final lob, that I’m having some intimacy issues. I’m having problems connecting to the men I’ve been dating. It’s very here-and-there, off-and-on. Solomon advises a regimen of the inner Meg, beginning with When Harry Met Sally, and I immediately feel depressed.
Cahiers du Co-dependency
The following are among the movies recommended by Reel Therapy’s Dr. Gary Solomon for those who would like to explore co-dependency, which he defines as “supporting a person or persons in their dysfunctional behavior or relying on another person to identify your feelings or needs”:
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Avalon The Bad Seed Bastard Out of Carolina The Best Years of Our Lives Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice Casablanca Come Back, Little Sheba Corrina, Corrina Drunks East of Eden 84 Charing Cross Road Fatso The First Time (1983) Fried Green Tomatoes Home for the Holidays The Hustler I’m Not Rappaport Inventing the Abbotts Jeffrey The Joker Is Wild Klute L.A. Story The Lady Gambles Leaving Las Vegas Lenny Like Mom, Like Me Little Man Tate Love, Lies and Lullabies The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Mask Mildred Pierce My Left Foot Ragtime The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Single Bars, Single Women Stand and Deliver A Star Is Born Stuart Saves His Family Tales of Ordinary Madness A Thousand Acres 3 Men and a Baby Trading Mom A Tree Grows in Brooklyn The Vanishing (1993) The Verdict (1982) Waiting To Exhale What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) The Women’s Room Zoot Suit Reprinted with permission of Lebhar-Friedman Books ©2001
Hank Stuever is a staff writer atThe Washington Post.
REEL THERAPY: How Movies Inspire You To Overcome Life’s Problems By DR. GARY SOLOMON | Lebhar-Friedman Books | 274 pages $13 paperback