Movies as Healing Journeys by Bill Johnson
When I first heard the idea that movies could offer insight into life’s problems I found the idea far fetched. The idea behind this concept is that people can be so caught up wrestling with their issues — dysfunctional relationships, bad choices in life, addictions, and struggles to resolve childhood problems that perspective is lost. Watching certain movies, we can see how others deal with similar difficult problems or issues. For example…
Someone dealing with being with family over the holidays could watch Rocket Gibraltar and come to an understanding of why going home for the holidays as an adult can be so difficult.
People struggling with the concept of denial could watch the Accidental Tourist or When a Man Loves a Woman.
Someone struggling with the issue of being judged could watch Defending Your life.
Someone watching A Beautiful Mind can learn how the disease of schizophrenia impacts individuals, families, co-workers, and friends.
I was introduced to this idea of Hollywood movies offering healing messages by a therapist, Dr. Gary Solomon, who wrote a book, Reel Therapy. As a proofreader of the original manuscript, and as someone who underwent therapy with Dr. Solomon, I have first hand experience in how this process work.
I found that the underlying dynamic of using movies to gain healing insights sprang from the fact that while I typically protect myself when someone questions why I’m doing something, I relax and let in ideas and experience my feelings more directly when I’m watching a movie. I can also see things about myself in characters in a movie that I can’t see when someone else tries to tell me something about myself. I generally respond to the messenger, not the message.
One of my major issues when I started therapy revolved around being a fixer. I couldn’t understand why someone I was helping in a relationship at the time was angry with me. Dr. Solomon suggested I watch the movie When a Man Loves a Woman, with Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. In the story, Ryan is a lively personality who brings excitement to the life of quiet, thoughtful Garcia. When the drinking which fuels her fun personality becomes life threatening, they have to deal with her alcoholism. She goes into treatment. When she returns, there’s a scene where Ryan’s children are squabbling. Ryan is dealing with the situation when Garcia shows up. He basically announces, ‘I’m the healthy person here; will the recovering alcoholic please step aside so I can fix this problem.’
I then saw why my girlfriend was angry. To satisfy my need to ‘fix’ her and feel good about myself, I needed her to not be able to deal with her own problems. I wasn’t giving her the time to find and be responsible for her own solutions.
I could only see this dynamic when I watched this movie. I simply could not understand this concept when it was explained to me. I had developed a powerful self-image that revolved around fixing others. When I saw the truth of what I was doing and why — mirrored back to me in a movie, I didn’t block out the message, and I could then begin to deal with the underlying issue of resolving my own problems instead of avoiding them by helping others.
Another issue I couldn’t understand about myself was how some people responded to my esoteric sense of humor. For many years, good friends had asked me to understand how people who didn’t know me interpreted my humor. I shrugged off their advice. Then Gary had me watch a film called The Men’s Club, about a group of men who decide to imitate a women’s support group to see what happens. A man who can’t deal with his feelings sabotages the club. He masks this by suggesting the men go to a bordello instead of talking about their feelings. The character I was asked to pay attention to was someone in the group who generally stayed in the background making esoteric, off-the-wall remarks. Remarks that often made no sense whatsoever to anyone else.
The same kind of remarks I enjoyed making.
I could finally see what I looked like. This realization had a potent effect on me. Since that time, I try to introduce myself to people who don’t know me in a straightforward manner before indulging my esoteric sense of humor.
A third movie Dr. Solomon recommended I watch was Drop Dead Fred. This film took me into painful territory I didn’t want to explore. In therapy, when Dr. Solomon would try and probe where I put my anger, I would not be able to comprehend what he was saying; even though I knew he was talking to me, his words were meaningless sounds. Even when I re-listened to tapes of those sessions, I could not hear those questions. I had some serious body/mind armor protecting me from dealing with anger.
So Dr. Solomon recommended I watch Drop Dead Fred. In the film, a young woman is abandoned by her husband. She returns home to live with her mother and reverts to a more childish, dependent personality. When she returns home, she also finds someone she left behind long ago, Drop Dead Fred, her imaginary playmate. Drop Dead Fred is more than an imaginary playmate, however. When she was a little girl, Fred acted out her anger toward her overbearing mother. While she silently stewed, Fred would smear animal excrement all over the mother’s beautiful white carpets, etc.
When the young woman again decides to be an adult and be responsible for her decisions, Drop Dead Fred disappears. He has no purpose in her adult life.
I never had an imaginary playmate raining ruin on the people I was angry with, but I found other outlets like cutting remarks or passive-aggressive behavior. I also came to realize that in my life I’d swallowed a significant chunk of my anger with large doses of sugar, salt and fatty foods. Watching the movie helped nudge me toward processing my feelings of anger.
Each of Dr. Solomon’s books, The Motion Picture Prescription and Reel Therapy, have indexes that cross reference movies by title and healing messages. While some films focus on one topic, alcoholism, for example, another movie might touch on several issues, being raised by an abusive parent, alcoholism, co-dependency. The basic topics covered in Reel Therapy are: abandonment, abuse, adoption, alcohol, cop-dependency, death/dying, denial, divorce, drugs, family, food, friends, gambling, mental illness, relationships, sex/sexuality.
I’m not suggesting this process of watching movies with healing messages is an easy cure for life’s problems. I wrestle daily with many of the issues I took into therapy. I’m just better at recognizing what I’m wrestling with. That helps me make better choices; or, if I still make bad choices, at least I can recognize what I’m doing and change course.
I believe in this process not only because it helped me, but also because many people in the world will never be able to afford therapy. Most people, however, can afford to rent movies that, along with a guide like Dr. Solomon’s (other books on the subject are available now), will provide them some healing insight into their lives and struggles. And some comfort that we are not alone in our struggles.
There’s also a very practical benefit to this studying this concept. Screenwriters can use the understanding they gain from movies with therapeutic messages to build stronger, more believable characters and plots. Someone writing a screenplay about alcoholics could watch The Lost Weekend, the Billy Wilder classic, to understand the dynamics of being an alcoholic or someone dealing with an alcoholic. Another Billy Wilder classic, The Apartment, has Jack Lemmon trying to climb the corporate ladder by letting executives use his apartment for extra-martial affairs. A great plan until he falls in love with his boss’s girlfriend. This film explores the cost of being willing to do anything to succeed.
Stories that resonate deeply with audiences often have, at their hearts, the issues many of us wrestle with in daily life. Star Wars features an estranged father and son. The first Indiana Jones film features a pair of mismatched lovers. Sleepless in Seattle features a man trying to deal with his grief over the loss of his wife. Memento features a man determined to create a meaningful ‘story’ about his wife’s death.
Take away each film’s heart, and what’s left is a soulless exercise in plot mechanics.
In closing, I want to mention one last unresolved issue I have from my work with Dr. Solomon. When I was proofreading The Motion Picture Prescription, Dr. Solomon insisted that in the movie Harvey, Harvey is an IMMAGINARY rabbit. I insisted Harvey is an INVISIBLE rabbit. Dr. Solomon noted out disagreement in his book. I’m sure anyone who watches the movie will agree with me that Harvey is INVISIBLE, not IMAGINARY. I assume Dr. Solomon has some deep-rooted, unresolved issues around invisible rabbits. I hope someone will make a movie that deals with this issue for the sake of others with this problem.
Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise, a popular writing workbook, and web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, www.storyispromise.com. He’s a produced playwright, optioned screenwriter, and has read manuscripts for literary agents.
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