Shrink at the Movies

Shrink at the Movies: “Jurassic Park” (1993) in 3-D (2013)

[SPOILER ALERT - MOVIE AND NOVEL]

Saw “Jurassic Park” (1993) today in its 3-D re-issue. It holds up, even after 20 years, in terms of intense suspense and a pleasing sense of wonder — even during the scary parts. Its “Icarus flying too close to the Sun” theme still resonates, especially when we have the Monsanto and GMO food war raging in the present day.

Like the “Titanic” story, the idea of someone (or a group of people) thumbing their nose at Mother Nature for commercial gain only tempts Fate. I personally have problems with the late Michael Crichton’s ideas (author of the original novel version) and his notorious “global-warming-is-a-hoax” conservative opinions, but his overall message that maybe Mother Nature knew what she was doing in making the dinosaurs extinct is a powerful one.

From a psychological perspective, themes emerge such as the extreme hubris of entrepreneur John Hammond (played by grandfatherly Sir Richard Attenborough in a dramatically watered-down version from the book’s character), which is a warning to all of us to apply critical thinking to what we do and consider all sides when the stakes are high (like the risk of people being eaten by cloned sharp-toothed wild animals when we envision a redux of a pre-historic petting zoo).

Another theme includes confronting our fears, which every character does, eventually, when faced with sudden death in the teeth of a hungry oversized reptile. I kept wondering what most of us would do in the same situations. At least the little boy character admits, somewhat sheepishly, to throwing up after an attack from a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I think he speaks for all of us had that been a reality. The scares are made all the more intense, delightfully, in the new 3-D format, and help to underscore the feeling of “being there”, no doubt activating our parasympathetic nervous systems with the simple addition of plastic glasses.

Still another theme, much more subtly, is about the paternal instinct, as evidenced by Sam Neill’s character’s initial reluctance to children, who seems ultimately won-over (and not necessarily by the most charming kids, making Neill look like a pushover). I guess every screenplay needs to show “development” of a character arc, and his is getting in touch with his latent paternal instincts. Somewhat unsatisfying is not seeing the buffoonishly-greedy John Hammond get eaten by his own little darlings (as happens in the novel) — (and by that I mean by the dinosaurs, not by the grandchildren).

Even Laura Dern’s character’s subtle feminism makes its way known throughout the script, making a good point that science and survivalism are not solely a man’s business (as if it ever were, merci beacoup au Marie Curie).

Jeff Goldblum as the reluctant philosopher (and chaos theorist, years before we knew bazinga about any “Dr. Sheldon Cooper”) simply says what many of us are thinking, about the folly of Hammond’s idea and not leaving Nature (the hell) alone in the first place. We’ve apparently come a long way in our expectations of male body fascism, too, in 20 years — the seemingly gratuitous shot of Goldblum’s bare torso, in not-very-cut, 1990-era straight-guy shape, drew laughs in the audience I was with, apparently busting the “beefcake-who-really-isn’t” shot by director Spielberg (believe me, I love Spielberg, but never send a straight director in to do a man’s beefcake shot; it just won’t work — bring in Joel Schumacher or Bryan Singer, but leave it to a professional on the subject). I also find it offensive that the worst villain in the story, a crooked I.T. saboteur, is played by an obese actor, furthering the very old Hollywood notion that villains are either overweight, people of color, foreigners, gay, or unattractive, in that “only bad witches are ugly” kind of way.

And I wouldn’t be complete discussing themes in “Jurassic Park” without a nod toward our respect for animals in nature and how they can evoke our better instincts of patience and compassion. The scene with Sam Neill and the kids sitting high in a tree and lovingly petting a benign dinosaur with a headcold, or Laura Dern tending to a sick gentle giant who has fallen sick in a field, reminds us to be respectful and kind to animals whenever we get the chance — pre-historic specimens, or not.

When a movie can evoke in us humility in the face of the evolution of Nature, self-awareness, feminism, and an appreciation for young humans and prehistoric animals, it’s a movie worth converting to 3-D and paying to see in theatrical release all over again. Like the banner displayed in the great hall of Jurassic Park, dinosaurs rule the earth once again.

Shrink at the Movies: “Silver Linings Playbook” (2013)

[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS and quoting offensive slurs, in an academic way]

I must say, I was very impressed with the screenplay, direction, and performances in “Silver Linings Playbook”. Obviously, a film about someone with mental illness (Bipolar Disorder, to be exact) is going to interest me and the mission of this essay series.

However, I almost boycotted this film, because as a gay man, I was appalled at Bradley Cooper’s involvement in “The Hangover” series, especially the first one, where he approaches a friend’s (a straight male) house to pick him up for a road-trip to Vegas in a car, and yells toward the house, “Paging Dr. Faggot! Paging Dr. Faggot!”. My assertion is that if the script had called for Cooper’s character to say, “Paging Dr. Nigger!” that he would have walked off the set and called SAG. Sure; that was the screenwriter’s fault, and the studio’s for allowing the slur, and Cooper was contractually obligated to say the line as written, but where was the outcry? The reason I spell out both of those slurs, above, is to demonstrate that those slurs should carry equal weight as to how appalled we are at hearing them in film or seeing them in print; I’m not condoning the use of either, and that’s my point. Both should be considered equally offensive, along with many other slurs I could quote, but they’re not; the first one is still considered “acceptable” in film, and the second one isn’t. The particular slur Cooper uses is especially egregious, since in the context of “The Hangover”, Cooper’s character is NOT a buffoon or villain (from whom we might expect slurs), but is the “hero” of the movie — who stands by his friend and ultimately leads the group to resolution. He’s the handsome, “cool one” of the group, and the last shot of the film is him lovingly holding his little boy on his lap at a barbecue, the “ideal” husband and family man. Sorry, but in my Universe, the “ideal” husband and family man doesn’t use any slurs, including the “F-word”, 2.0.

Even in “SLP”, they lost me for a bit in the middle when Patrick’s therapist, whom Patrick encounters in the parking lot of a football game, rough-houses with other fans and refers to the opposing team as “cock-suckers!” That word is still considered an anti-gay slur. If the character had referred to the opposing team as “cunt-lickers”, the so-called “joke” would not have worked, because that would have implied their heterosexuality, and that wouldn’t be an “insult” to the other team. When are we going to be enlightened enough not to use anti-gay slurs in film as insults? Because we’ve (mostly) already gotten away from film “heroes” using other racial/ethnic/cultural slurs in dialogue, yet the anti-gay slurs remain uttered occasionally by otherwise “respected” characters. I call bullshit.

As much as I love movies, I think they “get it wrong” in the depiction of therapists (ethical, good ones anyway) MOST of the time. First of all, I don’t think a therapist would necessarily yell slurs in the parking lot of a football stadium, least of all in front of a current patient and his family. He also wouldn’t accompany the patient home after the parking-lot melee; he would have observed appropriate boundaries and seen Patrick later. Other than those, the therapist character makes some good points in the scenes where he is in session with Patrick, especially regarding cognitive re-framing of Patrick’s assumptions, and helping Patrick brainstorm alternative interpretations and behavior choices.

So, after deciding to give Mr. Cooper a fair shake, I must say, I was impressed with a very careful, studied, accurate performance by Cooper of someone with Bipolar Disorder. I’ve worked with hundreds of these patients in outpatient and inpatient psychiatric settings, and he “gets it”. It’s a testament to the screenplay (especially), Cooper’s acting talent (and slightly wild-eyed look, naturally), and of course careful direction.

Cooper plays Patrick always on the edge of madness and sanity, with a certain “wacky-but-wise” humor. He also deftly conveys a person with Bipolar Disorder (we don’t say “a Bipolar”; that’s perjorative; people are not diseases, they HAVE diseases — if I hear “that schizophrenic” or “You know, he’s HIV” one more time, I’m gonna decompensate myself). Cooper demonstrates the states of being unmedicated and unstable, versus being on medication and much more stable. That’s the way it works MOST (OK, perhaps not ALL) of the time.

Jennifer Lawrence as “Tiffany” is also masterful, and I have a feeling the Academy might agree with me (time will tell). Certainly the Golden Globes and SAG Awards thought so. Her disability is more subtle, and is less textbook diagnosis. She certainly has some form of hypsersexuality, and she mentions the use of antidepressants, but my take on her is that she is in acute bereavement over the loss of her spouse and probably has Postraummatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from it (on a famous scale of human stressors one can endure, death of a spouse is a 100). Her manipulative behavior (see the movie) might also indicate Borderline Personality Disorder. She matches Cooper carefully, and watching her eyes looking into his in most scenes is a master class in acting and relating to a scene partner. If she wins an Oscar, it will be for best acting, yes, but also best re-acting and being attuned to a co-star in what we often call “screen chemistry.”

Other actors (especially the obvious, Robert DeNiro) certainly lend quality to the film. Even DeNiro’s character, Patricio, could be diagnosed according to the DSM-IV-TR as having a gambling addiction, and perhaps an Impulse Control Disorder, in addition to his obvious “superstition” and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What a family.

The themes I like best about “SLP” include how we don’t become perfect and then enter relationships; we enter relationships as imperfect beings, and then grow, together, over time, with a perhaps equally imperfect spouse (although my spouse is, indeed, perfect, so you can’t go by that, always). But even Patrick admits to Tiffany, about his beloved estranged wife, “Sure, we wanted to change each other.”

I think there are also positive themes about family. DeNiro’s character actively reflects on his role as a father, and what he wished he had done differently in raising Patrick and his brother. I’m sure many a parent goes through a woulda-shoulda-coulda (the good ones, anyway), and DeNiro, while still playing his usual stock character, breathes his usual life into an already-good script.

The film’s somewhat “twisted”-but-happy ending (that seems to be a curious blend of “Charly” with “Dirty Dancing”) does a great educational service to the public about people living with psychiatric disabilities to show that they, too, are capable of loving relationships. It also shows the value of community supports versus institutionalization, a model that I teach my USC graduate students called “Psychosocial Rehabilitation”.

Any film that brings awareness, sensitivity, and compassion to people living with mental illness is a good one in my playbook, “silver linings” variety, or not.

Shrink at the Movies: “The Avengers” (2012)

“The Avengers” (2012) — Well, saw this last night, and I certainly join the ranks of the fans who have made this already one of the most successful movies of all time.

It’s a fun, fast-moving superhero movie, made more endearing by assembling the heroes of recent previous Marvel hero movies such as “Thor”, “The Hulk”, “Iron Man”, and “Captain America” (my personal favorite, even though with my long-ish blonde hair and deep-set blue eyes, I could be Thor’s MUCH older, and not nearly as buff, uncle LOL..). “Avengers” reminds me a little bit of the 1966 “Batman” movie, where they assembled all the star villains from the TV series for one big villain-fest movie.

It’s hard to take a “popcorn summer blockbuster” and interpret it from a shrink’s POV, but I think some themes emerge. I like how self-empowered each hero (and heroine, in Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow) is, possessing admirable qualities of focus, determination, and certainly strength. They have each made a moral decision to use their super-gifts and talents for good, which is a lesson we could all adopt.

I also think of the actors, who certainly have plenty of time and money to train their bodies with the best of trainers, food, equipment, and support. Their characters seem to look incredible “naturally”, but those actors worked hard to be in pristine physical fitness for the shoot. I’ve made a sort of amateur study on healthy aging, and I’ve noted that people who have kept the most fit during their lifetimes tend to be much healthier and well-functioning into their old age (example: my 96-year-old great aunt, who lives alone in a little house in Virginia, and when she gets bored, rides the LifeCycle she keeps in her basement, after a long history of tennis and physical activity). Chris Evans (“Captain America”) has detailed in interviews his diet and training regimen, which sounds exhausting. But whether it’s the characters or the actors, we can take a lesson in the positive self-esteem that comes with taking care of our physical bodies, even if most of us are not in superhero shape.

We can also take a lesson from the villain, Loki, evil brother of Thor, who is consumed with greed and lust for power. He is almost a stock-character villain, but who among us has no regrets about acts of greed or pride in our own past? Despite the overall aims of the Republican Party, greed at the expense of all other is NOT a good trait when it comes to character. Is there a Loki in all of us? Take any given day: Are we being more like Loki, selfish, greedy, insecure, and Narcissistic, or are we being more like Thor, generous, selfless, and dedicated to the well-being of others?

Another positive trait the film implies is the power of teamwork. In a number of sequences, one of the heroes “saves” another. They got our back. Whose “back” do we have? Who are we looking out for? Who are we a “hero” to? There should be someone, even if it’s just working for a cause we believe in.

We could ponder lots of other positive mental health traits implied in the film, such as hope, determination, resiliency, innovation, and perseverance, but you get the idea. I highly recommend you see the movie, if you haven’t already, even if you don’t usually go for superhero action flicks. For me, I’m sticking with my original observation, and heading to the gym. I’ve got catching up to do.

Shrink at the Movies: “The Artist” (2011)

“The Artist”

(1/25/12)

(SPOILER ALERT: CONTAINS PLOT POINTS)

Seeing “The Artist” this past weekend was a delight.  I primarily identify as a psychotherapist, which is how I make my living in a full-time private practice in West Hollywood (part of Los Angeles County and home to many in the entertainment business), but my avocational identity as a film/TV history buff is right up there with it.  So a film, in part, about film history is very exciting – a silent film, no less, from 2011.  The French film, a hit at Cannes last May, was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius and stars the unbelievably charming Jean Dujardin and the sparkling Berenice Bejo.

Plenty of film critics have given this movie its due, but the point of Shrink at the Movies (or, as I like to call it, “S/M”) is to give interpretations from a therapist’s point of view, of some of the lessons we can take from this inspiring film.

What are some of those lessons?  I think they are thus:

Know Your History – The film takes place between 1927 and 1932, right at the time that “talkies” were starting to dramatically overtake silents as the preferred format for films.  Knowing your history – in this case, film history – can help “ground” you and give you a sense of identity in the context of time and place.  We currently cope with a certain amount of overwhelm from new technologies, and many of us have mastered DVR’s, smart phones, texting, MP3’s, and entertainment streaming, all in the past few years alone.  Imagine, then, the sense of overwhelm that actors and others might have faced back then, seeing the tsunami wave of talkies taking over an industry that used to have a solid status quo in silents.  As the main character, actor George Valentin, Dujardin plays the embodiment of this overwhelm.  His world has been upset by the advent of talkies, and it is implied that it isn’t desirable for him to speak dialogue in talkies because he is apparently a French actor with a strong accent working in American movies (many silent film actors were “undesirable” for talkies in America because of strong foreign accents).  So if you have the feeling that Time moves very fast and it’s hard to keep up in one lifetime, take heart: many generations before you have had to make the same adjustment in their own periods.

Make Your Mark – Early in the film, actor George Valentin helps out female protagonist Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) by saying that a successful actress needs “a little something extra,” so he spontaneously takes an eyebrow pencil and draws in a tiny beauty mark above her lip, which we see come and go for the rest of the picture, depending on whether we see Peppy with, or without makeup.  Don’t we ALL have a “beauty mark” of some sort?  Maybe it’s a skill, a talent, a little “extra something” we were born with, or maybe it’s something that we develop through upbringing, family, education, peers, or culture.  The point is to identify, utilize, and enjoy the part of ourselves that makes us unique.  In psychology, this supports our self-esteem and strong sense of Self, which builds resilience for bad times and makes good times even better.  What is your “beauty mark”?

Live Your Love Story – In addition to the almost educational quality of film history “The Artist” has, it is, essentially, a love story.  Peppy’s consistent, if sometimes ineffective, love for George shines through – even when she makes a mistake by dissing silent actors to a radio host as George overhears (filmed at the lovely Cicada restaurant in downtown Los Angeles).  Peppy’s attempts later to “control” George and get him work out of a sense of pity backfire, as most attempts to control others in relationships do.  In my work as a therapist with couples, very often we have to adjust power and control dynamics in order for the relationship to improve (those of you who are fans of TV’s “Desperate Housewives” and follow the Lynette/Tom story line know all too well the dangers of one partner overwhelming the other with “good-intentioned” acts that subvert their partner’s independence and even dignity).  However, while Peppy’s “help” might make George feel emasculated (which is kind of 1930s sexist of him), George is also guilty of excessive “pride” in accepting reasonable help, as his long-time valet, Clifton (James Cromwell, an excellent actor and dedicated animal rights activist) points out.  Together, George and Peppy work it out – they find a way, through creative problem-solving, to work together in a way that benefits them both, by making a movie musical dancing together.  I’ve found that this very often the case with couples: when you put your minds together and come up with creative solutions to problems that you can both commit to, then you have a better time of it.  When working with couples, I always encourage the “Three C’s: Commitment, Communication, and Compromise”.  Part of the Compromise part is to creatively brainstorm potential solutions to problems that you can both live with.  Peppy’s line, “I have an idea!” is just this sort of turning point, for the better, in their love story.

Love Your Work – In addition to the primary love story between George and Peppy, there are a number of parallel and concurrent love stories. There is the charming love affair between George and “Jack”, his dog (played by Uggie).  There is a sort of love story between George and Clifton, his supremely devoted valet (who stands vigil outside of George’s apartment during George’s meltdown).  There is the bittersweet love story between George and his wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), which is never really quite explained why those two are so estranged.  In several scenes, George is seen giving more attention and devotion to Jack the Dog than to Doris, and we never really know why (perhaps the film’s greatest flaw).  Then there is the love story that both George and Peppy have with the movies, along with Al Zimmer (John Goodman), the studio executive for Kinograph Studios.  George’s meltdown where he tries to burn his films is like a lover who is getting revenge for being scorned by the industry he loves (few might know that film stock back then was Nitrate, which is both flammable and degradable, which is an important aspect of film preservation such as that done by the UCLA Film & Television Archive).  The tireless devotion that various characters have, on-screen and off, show the importance of bringing love to your work to make it thrive.  If you don’t love your work, try to find something to love about it, or find new work that you can give your heart to.

Cope with Change – One of the last words my wise and funny grandfather said to me, during my last family visit before he passed away in 1993 at the age of 91, was simply, “Roll with the punches.”  At the time, I only partially knew what he was saying.  With time, and life’s challenges since then, I have come to a deeper understanding of this phrase.  Just like Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) before, George Valentin fails to cope as an actor with the transition from silent to talkies.  This precipitates a professional and personal melt-down (Gloria Swanson has said the biggest difference between her and Norma Desmond was that her life after silents was productive and robust, whereas Norma’s fell apart).  We sympathize with George, and practically want to break the silence in the theater (save for Ludovic Bource’s wonderful score, despite criticisms from Kim Novak that it borrowed too much from the “Vertigo” score) by yelling at the screen for him to get himself together.  We know that there is life after the Great Depression and the advent of talkies, but he doesn’t.  But George’s folly is our gain; its lesson is that we must be resilient and cope with changes in our lives and in our world as they come; there is no such thing as being successfully stagnant.  A good adage for good psychological adaptive coping is asking ourselves, “What are the changes that I see around me?  Now, how can I thrive in the midst of these changes?”

Beware the Demon in the Bottle – Like so many movies before it, “The Artist” is also a cautionary tale to beware of alcohol.  George’s meltdown is not just changes in technology, which would have been challenging for anyone in his position.  It is made worse by the behavioral, maladaptive coping responses he makes by basically drinking his troubles away.  The problem with that, though, is that the problems don’t really go away; it’s more like he drinks the troubles from molehills to mountains.  His own despair and the alcohol push him down; the love of Peppy, Clifton, and even Jack (in perhaps the most delightful moments of the film) bring him back up.  Jack Canfield, the inspirational author/editor of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series and his own self-help masterpiece, “The Success Principles”, says that in this life, Event + Response = Outcome.  Events, such as hardships and mishaps, might happen to us, but it’s all in how we RESPOND to these that ultimately affects the outcome.  In my private practice, I often help clients from all walks of life who have become addicted to substances (such as alcohol, cocaine, or meth) or behavioral processes (shopping, gambling, sex).   I’m no prude, but for a robust mental health, we must occasionally assess what our relationship to substances and other vices is.  We don’t know, by the end of “The Artist”, what lay in store for George’s relationship to alcohol.  We do know that Alcoholics Anonymous was formed by the mid 1930’s, so perhaps George found not only new success in early musicals but also with early recovery.

I think the take-home messages in “The Artist” are plenty.  For a generation who might never have seen a movie from the silent era (those poor, impoverished souls!), it’s an opportunity to see how a wonderful picture can be made without direct dialogue.  From a historical perspective, we are taught, once again, that life goes on after changes in our respective professions and in our world.  We learn that the love of two people in a romance, the love between a person and his/her pet, and the camaraderie of the people we work with, are all treasures in our lives that you can’t put a price on.

Inspiring stories and pieces of entertainment can be a mood buoyant.  They can help us learn lessons and build resilience through lessons we can apply to our own lives.  For supporting your mental health – and even for just a delightful evening out – it’s hard to beat “The Artist”.

Shrink at the Movies: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011)

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011)

I went into “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011), directed by Stephen Daldry, fully intending to hate it for being cloying and pretentious – just based on the title and concept, not based on reading any reviews (although after reading some reviews, others have asserted after seeing it  that it was pretentious).  I dunno; I liked it a lot better than I thought I would.  For one, it made me really re-think my long-held conviction that I don’t want children.  If I could have a child as extraordinary as Oskar Schell (13-year-old Thomas Horn, in his film debut after being spotted by producers on “Kids Jeopardy”), then maybe I do.

Oskar is a child with Asperger’s Syndrome/Disorder (there is debate on what to call this; some say disorder so that families can get medical and psychosocial support services, others say syndrome to characterize it as a “difference”, not a pathology).  Oskar is depicted as having a particularly loving relationship with his brilliant father, who appears to really understand his son, as opposed to his mother, Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock), who appears not to.  “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is the story of the loss of Oskar’s father in the World Trade Center towers, through the eyes of Oskar’s attempts to cope with the loss, in his own complex ways.

Our society is being asked to brave our own fears to view one of the first films that directly addresses the emotional impact on a family caused by the 9/11 attacks, after “United 93” (2006), (if I’m forgetting any others, please leave word in the Comments section, folks! J).  Even ten years after 9/11, some say “it’s too soon” for such a fictional depiction of people’s pain.  But will it EVER be long enough to not be reminded of, as Oskar says, “The Worst Day”?  The other warning bell is Tom Hanks, as Oskar’s somewhat-too-perfect dad Thomas Schell.  All of Hanks’ movies run the risk of having that “give me an Oscar for this kind of sentiment, will ya, folks” feel to them, which many people find presumptuous.  (It’s a matter of taste; I have a high tolerance for Hanks-Film-style sentiment, but I know many fine people who don’t.)

From a mental health perspective, this film (which I will just call “ELIC” now) broaches many important, sensitive, and even taboo subjects:  The trauma of 9/11, Asperger’s Disorder, parenting a child with Asperger’s Disorder (which is its own challenge), the risks of urban living, divorce, the trauma of the Holocaust (Oskar’s elderly neighbor, presumably also his unacknowledged grandfather, is mute after witnessing his parents being killed during World War II), the beauty of living in New York City (really; I’m not being sarcastic here), how one goes on with life after setbacks, traumas, and losses, and how one confronts their fears in order to move on with life.  For taking on that many important themes, plus maybe some others (such as relationships – between partners, or between parent and child), “ELIC” deserves a lot of credit for tackling many subjects with relatively little confusion.

I’ve only worked with people with Asperger’s Syndrome/Disorder (and their parents) a little bit in my practice (my practice is comprised mostly high-functioning adults, often creative professionals or small business owners), but the depiction of Oskar struck many familiar chords of real life for these folks.  Wikipedia’s overview of the disorder is informative for the curious:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome

But suffice to say Asperger’s is “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.  Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language are frequently reported” (Wikipedia).

We see many aspects of this in little Oskar’s behavior.  The way he interacts with the various people on his “Black List” (people whose last names are “Black”, in an effort to find the lock that fits a key Oskar’s father left behind in a small envelope marked “Black”) shows the odd but somewhat charming interactional style of people with Asperger’s, even if he tends to be long-winded with questionable attention from others (ahem).  Oskar’s sensitivity to sounds/lights and need for calming rituals (carrying his tambourine) and his obsession with detail of his interests (mapping his route to visits on his Black List, oxymorons, language games) are also classic symptoms.

I’ve also worked with the parents of someone with Asperger’s, and as Oskar’s mother, Sandra Bullock portrays this beautifully – from initial confusion on how to relate to her son, to the hurt of hearing her child’s un-empathic verbalizations, to intense worry about his well-being, to extreme dedication and ultimately an especially pure parent-child love.  While Linda’s relationship to Oskar is initially presented as stilted and distant, it is only through Linda’s brave journey to become connected to the son she feels “disconnected” to, and to learn to think like he thinks (by shadowing his visits to people on the Black List), is she able to establish the bond that will be critical to Oskar’s security, growth, safety, and subsequent development in life, a bond previously held exclusively by Oskar’s father.  Most of us don’t have Asperger’s, but it’s certain that we ALL need someone in our lives who “gets us” just the same.  For Oskar, the only people who are worthy of his love and attention are the ones who make enough effort to get to know him, even if on his terms – which we see Linda Schell, Abby Black (the wonderful Viola Davis), William Black (Jeffrey Wright), the Renter (Max von Sydow), various other people on the Black List, and the Grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) do.

The theme of GUILT runs throughout the film.  Oskar’s grandfather (Max Von Sydow, finally looking as old now as his age makeup made him look 40 years ago as “The Exorcist” (1972)), referred to as “The Renter” (in his grandmother’s apartment next door), is mute from the trauma and guilt of surviving his parents’ death.  Oskar confesses to William Black his intense guilt at not picking up the phone on the last answering machine message from his father from the collapsing World Trade Center tower.  Linda has guilt about not being the idealized parent; her husband was.  Supporting characters like Abby Black and her husband/ex, William (Jeffrey Wright), depict the conflicting emotions and guilt of divorce, and a montage of people on the Black List depicts their reactions of grief and guilt in response to Oskar’s letter to each of them.

Another theme involves Oskar confronting his many FEARS – of loud noises, of meeting strangers, of public transportation, of closed spaces, and even of the swing-set in Central Park that his father introduces him to in a flashback.  After 9/11, perhaps the ultimate in fears coming true for Oskar’s family, confronting his fears is the only way to preserve his connection to his father.  Ultimately, the film’s final scene of Oskar gently overcoming his fear of the swing, moves us to know that while awful things can happen, and losses can occur, we all need to still enjoy the small beauties of a swing on a sunny day and a liberating leap into the air.

I found myself at times during “ELIC” weeping not at the events actually being depicted on screen in the story, but just “around” and “about” the almost incomprehensible ramifications of 9/11.  I work with several people who were traumatized, to varying degrees, at Ground Zero that day.  I think 9/11 is the disaster of our generation, much like Pearl Harbor was for my parents or grandparents, or the Titanic or Hindenberg before that (1912 and 1937, respectively).  Films like “ELIC” put the 9/11 attack in perspective of how many individual lives were affected by the losses.  Oskar Schell might be fictional, but the pain and loss of children alone, plus countless other loved ones, are all too real.

Movies help us process our emotions.  They are a mirror of our collective life, and help us, in a relatively safe, contained time and space, to explore and attempt to make sense of what goes on around us (much like a therapy session).  Ultimately, I think “ELIC”’s message is not about the losses of 9/11, as important as that theme is.  I think it’s about the love of a child – whether from one parent, another parent, a grandparent, or a stranger.  As played by Thomas Horn, it’s hard not to love “Oskar Schell”, and everyone like him we should be so privileged to ever know.

Shrink at the Movies: “The King’s Speech” (2010)

“The King’s Speech” (2010)

Criticize, if you must, the cultural and technological juggernaut that is all things Facebook.  But I, for one, am very grateful that this phenomenon exists.  For many reasons, but one of my favorites is the opportunity to connect with people from My Past that I had lost touch with.  One such person is my high school friend and colleague, actor Robert Stanton, who was (like me) very active in our high school’s prestigious Drama Department (though he was/is FAR more talented than I), who went on to become a successful actor in New York and Hollywood with an impressive body of work, and counting.  So when Robert posted his welcoming message on my “Shrink at the Movies” Facebook wall that, “The King’s Speech is the best movie about psychotherapy ever made; discuss”, I had no choice but to, well, discuss.  So, Robert dear, this is for you.

Technically, Geoffrey Rush’s character in “The King’s Speech” (directed by Tom Hooper, who won the Directing Oscar, and starring Colin Firth, who won the Best Actor Oscar) is not a psychotherapist, but is a speech pathologist, aka speech therapist, who treats the King of England for a stuttering problem.  I do not treat stutter in my work as a psychotherapist, but I understand the inclination to meld the two professions, especially given their emphasis on the interpersonal communication and relationship between therapist and client.  According to sources close to the real Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), Logue apparently combined elements of speech therapy with an exploration of any psychological underpinnings for the condition (in this case, the hypercritical former king who abuses the young prince who eventually becomes the King, Logue’s patient).

Rush’s character early on establishes what we therapists call a “therapeutic alliance” with the King.  He also dispenses with any of that “your  Highness” protocol in the office and calls him by his first name, or actually his nickname, “Bertie”, so that at least a level, collaborative playing field can be established, or even a teacher-student hierarchical one.  This is, I believe, an important point.  When I work with someone, as I like to say, “in the public eye,” it would do us no good for me to be “star struck” and lose objectivity.  I might admire their work – I might even be in awe of their talent, skill, and the importance of their body of work, and the effect they have had on an industry and many people – but in the office, in doing the work, we are on a first-name basis and all is fair in confronting them on the areas where we determine that they undermine themselves and self-sabotage their own important life goals (just like any other client).  It is only through establishing this rapport and alliance with Bertie that Logue is able to probe where the heart of the problem lies in his troubled past as a child.

The later conflicts between Logue and Bertie, especially when Bertie gets frustrated and frequently uses the word “fuck” as a coping mantra to bind his own frustration and anxiety, are reminiscent of some “middle treatment” issues – not the beginning of the work, which is establishing the relationship, and not the end of the work, which is reviewing and consolidating gains in what therapists call the “termination” process (which sounds kind of awful, I realize), but middle treatment, where the therapeutic relationship is really covering ground at full cruising altitude.  It’s like the middle of a movie, play, marathon, workout, painting, sculpture, or even rock concert, and some would argue that this is where the good stuff really happens.

“The King’s Speech” also does a good job, I think, of depicting what we clinical social workers call the “micro” (person to person) versus the “macro” (the broader community or society) aspects of our work (I say clinical social workers because we tend to use the micro/macro terms, while my colleagues who are other types of licensed mental health professionals tend not to use this concept).  The “micro” relationship is between Logue and Bertie along together in a clinical treatment process; the “macro”, or world-at-large, implication is that Logue, the teacher, is helping Bertie, the KING OF ENGLAND, to prepare an entire nation for a major World War.  While the importance of achieving psychotherapy’s goals are usually apparent to the client, in the case of Logue and Bertie, the implications for WHY he needed to overcome his stammer, at least in part, were critical for a very high-profile job that requires the broadcast of formal speeches to support the morale of an entire country.  While everyone I work with significantly influences the lives of others (the lesson of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), which I will address in another essay), when I work with someone on whom hundreds of employees depend and millions of dollars are at stake, the work has especially sobering macro implications.  It’s not that these clients are “more important,” it’s that the stakes are higher of the magnitude of the implications for their success or failure at functioning well on many different personal and professional levels.  One wonders if the client in Logue’s office just before, or just after, sessions with Bertie got the same attention and treatment as the Royal Sovereign might.  I think, with Logue and with most therapists, they would.  Many therapists work on a sliding scale of their fee (perhaps giving a discounted fee occasionally to people of lower income);  they do not, however, work any sort of “sliding scale” on their efforts with the client.  This is part of the ethics of the profession, which are numerous and gravely important.

As I teach my students in my clinical practice class at the USC School of Social Work, there are many articles in the academic literature that purport the idea that it is not so much the psychotherapeutic theory or technique used with a patient (I use “client” and “patient” interchangeably) that affects the therapy outcome, it is primarily the quality of the relationship between therapist and client that affects positive outcomes.  While some studies indicate a slight edge of success for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (my personal favorite), and for what is called “evidence-based practice” of some techniques over others, I have found in my 20 years of doing therapy that it is, indeed, this relationship that is ultimately where the magic of therapy happens.

So it stands to reason, then, that my friend Robert Stanton, whom I worship from afar (he’s in New York), is perhaps correct when he says that “The King’s Speech” is the best movie about psychotherapy ever made.  Now, we have to consider some others, even such hilarious send-ups such as “Analyze This” (1999), which I will also try to address in a future essay, and a few others along the way, but I think Stanton’s overall hypothesis could be correct in that the Oscar-win-inspiring “King’s Speech” depicts the precious joy that is the therapeutic relationship.  Long live the King.

Shrink at the Movies: “Tootsie”

“Tootsie” (1982)

(1/24/12)

[SPOILER ALERT: CONTAINS PLOT POINTS]

While it’s not technically the 30th anniversary quite yet of one of the most successful film comedies of all time (that comes December 17, 2012), I love this film so much that I’m going to celebrate its milestone anniversary early.  And why not?  Its stars are still relevant today; Jessica Lange, who won an Oscar for her role as “Julie Nichols” in “Tootsie”, just won a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress in a TV Drama for her role as Constance (the Southern Menace, like a Blanche DuBois from Hell) on “American Horror Story.”  And “Tootsie’s” star, Dustin Hoffman, is starring in the new HBO series, “Luck.”  You just can’t keep a good “Tootsie” star down (if you look closely, a pre-“Golden Girls” Estelle Getty is seen briefly in a scene where Dorothy dances with Les).

There are so many directions that a psychotherapist can go in commenting about “Tootsie” that I feel like a person with ADD at a laser light show.  Do I comment about Gender Issues?  Couple and Relationship issues?  Homophobia?  The creative, if somewhat desperate, measures of the Unemployed Actor to cope with his unfortunate state?  Looks-ism?  Courtship Rituals of the Urban Hip?

OK, OK, one at a time.  For “Tootsie” is all of these, and more, and remains such a treasure that according to Wikipedia, in 1998, the Library of Congress deemed it “culturally significant” and added it to the National Film Registry for preservation.

Based on an original story by Larry Gelbart (of TV “M*A*S*H” fame) and originally titled, “Is It Really You?”, “Tootsie” is a boy (who is dressed as a girl) meets girl story, until girl finds out the girl she kinda likes is actually the boy and punches him in the stomach for arousing girl’s latent lesbian tendencies under false pretenses while boy is trying to raise money to produce and star in boy’s roommate’s play as boy actually falls in love with girl and she falls for boy, only after being out of the dress.  Or rather, both of them being out of the dress.  Really.  (See the Wikipedia listing for the full synopsis).

In my private practice as a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, I have worked with so many un- or under-employed actors and writers that I think “Tootsie” is realistic enough to be a documentary.  Or at least the depiction of how young, hungry, and broke (let’s not forget broke) young artistes can be.  In this regard, it’s as reliable as the Farmer’s Almanac (OK; extra points if you get the classic film reference I just made there, from another diva in a dress – leave comment if you know it).

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Dustin Hoffman’s character, Michael Dorsey, is an unemployed actor who has been deemed “difficult” by his agent (director Sydney Pollack) and others all over New York and can’t get the $8,000 he needs to produce and star in his roommate, Jeff’s, (played by Bill Murray), new play. After hearing that his friend (quasi-girlfriend) Sandy has auditioned for a role on a soap as a matronly hospital administrator, Michael dons dress and wig and actually nails the gig instead.  Locked into the elaborate ruse, he falls in love with co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) and hijinks ensue, especially after Julie’s dad (Charles Durning) falls for Michael-in-Drag, aka “Dorothy Michaels.”  The movie’s central theme of “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man” is played out masterfully with hilarious dialogue as Michael tries to extricate himself from the successful fiasco of his own too-clever making.

What kinds of issues, from my professional perspective, does the film entail along the way?

Gender Issues –  One has to be careful in depictions of drag, so as not to mock the very serious and important experience of the transgender person.  Even as our society has grown, somewhat, on sexual orientation issues, most people are still quite ignorant on gender identity issues (though the high-profile trans experience of Chaz Bono helps to bring the issue into awareness and discussion).  The issue in “Tootsie” is not about gender dysphoria issues, which, although bandied about as a “diagnosis” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the “DSM”, or “Bible of mental health disorders”, it’s considered a flawed diagnosis and not really representative of the transgender experience.  “Tootsie” is also not a depiction of Tranvestic Fetishism, which is being sexually and emotionally aroused by wearing clothes of the opposite sex.  The gender issues in “Tootsie” really boil down to the effect of an elaborate disguise, which also serves to sensitize the somewhat chauvinistic Michael Dorsey into an increased empathy for the Female Experience, or at least a glimpse into it.  The film’s exploration of the norms, expectations, contradictions, ironies, and just plain bum deal dynamics of gender role expectations in heterosexual relationships is a consistent theme throughout.  While one may think that “Tootsie” is about the crazy world of actors, theatre, and television, it is ultimately a romantic comedy that explores the foibles of human relationships (especially heterosexual ones, where the Mars/Venus perspectives collide hilariously).

Couple and Relationship Issues – Furthering the romantic comedy theme and the commentary on modern relationships, “Tootsie” is a survey of the different forms relationships take.  There is the frustrated, angry, unrequited love by Sandy to Michael; there is the “bromance” of starving artist/roommates Michael and Jeff; the darker tone of a vague threat of rape by the soap’s notoriously lecherous John Van Horn (George Gaynes); the funny-but-slightly-sad romantic feelings of lonely dad Les to Dorothy; Julie’s dysfunctional relationship with soap director Ron (Dabney Coleman, who is the darker side of Michael Dorsey personified); and Michael’s sincere relationship to Julie as a love-struck guy, and even the relationship from parent (Julie) or quasi-parent/babysitter (Dorothy)  to Julie’s daughter, Amy.  (One wonders if a great sequel could be in the works where Julie’s baby, Amy, grows up and dons “drag king” garb to reach a desired goal, figuring if it worked for her stepdad to marry her mom, maybe it will work for her?  Screenwriters take note!)  The film’s laundry list of the different types of relationships is actually heartwarming in its depiction of the many ways people develop feelings for one another – for better or for worse.

Homophobia – For 1982, before “Will and Grace” and various other positive depictions of gay men in television and movies that were to come later, “Tootsie” inevitably handles issues of homophobia in subtle and mostly funny ways, without lapsing into the vulgar homophobic “humor” some movies indulge in (shame on you, “Hangover.”)   Julie’s father, Les, is the “tough guy” embodiment of almost a “gay panic” when he learns the middle-aged woman he’s fallen for is actually a young male actor in drag.  Les’ line, “The only reason you’re still living is because I never kissed you” is perhaps the film’s worst, un-funny, extremely dark line that stands out like a corpse at a children’s birthday party.  It’s meant to be yet another “funny” line, but there is nothing funny about the threat of violence to gay men by weak straight men indulging in their Gay Panic “defense.”  The only way Les redeems himself (to Michael, Julie, and to the audience) is a subsequent line, “To tell the truth, you weren’t bad company” —  leaving the door open for Michael, out of drag, to eventually win over his possibly future father-in-law.  The other depiction of same-sex relationships is the subtle romance between Michael, as Dorothy, and Julie, who develops warm and almost “maternally romantic” feelings toward Dorothy.  It is kind of a cruel tease that Julie is falling in love with the person she’s with most (Dorothy) but is tortured by not being a lesbian to reciprocate.  Her feelings are sensitively handled late in the film, with Julie’s line, “I really love you, Dorothy.  But I can’t ‘love’ you.”  That sets up a very justifiable punch in the stomach to Michael after his big “reveal” scene when the entire ruse is up on national television during a live episode of “Southwest General.”  “John Van Horn” knows that Jeff is “Dorothy’s” roommate, and gives the line after the reveal scene, “Does Jeff  know??”, which was a hit every time in the four times (yes, four) that I saw “Tootsie” in theaters on its release.  Bill Murray, as Jeff, has a very funny line when he asks Michael earlier, facetiously, “I’m just worried you’re going to go to Hell for all of this”, a nice play on Christianist homophobia, transphobia, and oppression.  Ultimately, the film could have benefited not from a “play” on same-sex relationships between various characters, but depicting an actual happy gay or lesbian relationship to balance the various forms of parody.

Desperate Measures of the Unemployed Creative Professional – Michael’s response to the above line from Jeff is, “I believe in unemployment, but I don’t believe in Hell.”  This embodies Michael’s devotion to his craft, in that Hell, for an actor, is not fire and brimstone and pitch forks in the ass, but merely unemployment. I’ve worked with many actor and writer clients in Hollywood who would agree!  Actors and writers (I lump these together for discussion here, though in actual therapy, they are very different “minds”) demonstrate an unusual dedication to having the opportunity to work. They will do double-shifts waiting tables, they will study and put in countless hours of rehearsal and class, they will sacrifice the creature comforts their peers in other fields have; they will spend their last time on just the right outfit for a big audition or pitch meeting; in short, they will do almost anything to work.  The idea of a straight male actor being so desperate that he dons drag in order to raise money to do a “real” play as a male is by no means far-fetched.  (Perhaps it is far-fetched that he gets away with it for so long; in reality, Dustin Hoffman’s heavy whiskers would break through makeup in a relatively short time on the set, but even this is explained away in the film as Dorothy’s “mustache problem” that she is “sensitive about.”)  Part of the therapy and/or career coaching I do with creative professionals is helping them evolve artistically while at the same time making a living in a competitive profession as a self-employed artisan.  I think the general public would have an even greater appreciation for the actors they see, and the scripts they see produced, if they really knew the lengths that actors, writers, and other creative professionals go just to be able to work.  We forget in an average night out at the movies that hundreds or thousands of people have worked thousands of person-hours just to bring us our two-hour idyll.

Looks-Ism – In therapy with clients, especially in Los Angeles but it probably happens elsewhere, I’m surprised at how often “Looks-Ism” is a theme.  We all know about the status that comes from a profession or how much money one has, but in LA, a part of how someone is judged, even on things like trustworthiness and competence, is how they LOOK.  (In my animated lampoon of local LA health clubs, co-created on Extranormal.com and still available on YouTube, “Selecting a Gym in West Hollywood”, I had a character repeat, “I want to be thin and popular – it’s the only way to live.”  Meant as parody, I’ve been told by clients that it has apparently been adopted as an actual mantra by the locals…) .  When “Tootsie’s” soap opera casting director, “Rita” (Doris Belack) says to her cameraman on a studio intercom, “I want to make her look a little more attractive.  How far can you pull back?”  The blasé cameraman deadpans, “How do you feel about Cleveland?”.  Earlier, Jeff surveys the early-morning debut finished product of Michael’s transformation to Dorothy and surmises, “Well, it works…But don’t play hard to get.”  Later, Dorothy has a rant with director Ron, confronting him on the idea that “Masculine women are ugly” – when only recently Michael was guilty of chauvinistic behavior himself.  Julie, of course, is beautiful, and even radiant, and it’s easy to see how Michael would go to great lengths to win her over.  But the depiction of Les as the “older romantic” who is gray-haired and beer-bellied is a reminder that beauty (like Dorothy’s makeup) is only skin-deep.  Even the “message” that the slightly dowdier Sandy (Teri Garr) does not “get the guy” is a little disturbing in its looks-ism, but one could also argue that Sandy loses  Michael not because of her looks, but because of her neurotic personality that clashes with Michael’s equally-neurotic personality that ultimately seems to charm Julie.

Courtship Rituals of the Urban Hip – “Tootsie” could certainly be argued as the ultimate in “how I met your mother” stories.  The rituals of an earlier, pre-Dorothy Michael include hitting on Julie at a party and her responding by tossing a drink in his face.  Early on, Michael gets caught trying to try on one of Sandy’s dresses for practice and gets caught with his own clothes off and gets out of it by seducing Sandy.  Julie agonizes over breaking up with Ron.  All of these underscore Julie’s line about “finding being a woman in the 80’s complicated”, to which Dorothy (ironically) agrees.  As an audience, we relate to these filmic hijinks because who among us hasn’t done things in the context of dating that we regret?  Who among us would not use a magic “Do-Over”  at certain points in a relationship?  Elaborate disguises aside, relationships are still challenging.

Part of “Tootsie’s” success is not only its masterful modern use of the age-old “disguise” ruse, made popular by Shakespeare in “Twelfth Night” and so many other classic stories, but ultimately in its reassuring and sweet romance.  In the final scene, a repentant Michael professes his real (no tricks this time) love for Julie, admitting that if given a second chance, he’s “just gotta learn to do it without the dress.”  Julie reluctantly forgives in an mischievous smile, asking Michael if he can “borrow the Halston” as they literally walk off into the sunset of a busy Manhattan street.

The sweet notion that if we come clean, are honest, and “learn to do it without the dress” (aka the bullshit pretense that complicates so many relationships), we, too, will live happily ever after.  A part of couples therapy can be to strip away the distractions (like so much dress, padding, and makeup) and get to the good part that’s underneath (I meant underneath the pretense, not under the dress).

If you haven’t already seen the film (and that would be rare), I realize there is a certain “you had to be there” quality to this analysis.  And while few things in life are certain, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will enjoy the time invested in your life that it takes to see the amalgamation of genius that is “Tootsie.”

For you, “Tootsie,” I’ve been thinking about what film to add my Top 10 Favorite Films of All Time list, and in the words of the film’s theme song (penned  by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), “something’s telling me it might be you; yeah, it’s telling me it must be you; and I’m feeling it will just be you – all of my life…”