Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cinematherapy

I treated a client for some time who, at the outset, was incapable of identifying her emotional states.  If I asked her how she felt, she would respond with what she thought (or, as she put it, reflecting upon her early days in treatment, with "what my mother thought").


It's my experience that clients always tell us what they need from us, and also how we psychotherapists need to elicit this from them, the goal of therapy being, in essence, for them to create a coherent narrative about and for themselves that is, ultimately, co-constructed in the room.  


Speaking of narrative, I often get surprised reactions from new acquaintances when they learn that, previous to being a psychotherapist, I was a film and television development exec and taught English prior to that.  These occupations seem so disparate to most people.  Until I explain that in each of those professions I was/am dealing with character and behavior and narrative, whether it be in literature, film, or a person's life.


The above client gave me an opening one afternoon when she reported that she had watched the 1999 film Runaway Bride the night before.  "I could really identify with the character Julia Roberts played," my client said.  I knew the movie and asked her to elaborate.  She went on to talk about how Richard Gere's journalist character Ike (who's doing a story on Roberts' character, Maggie, who has jilted three men at the altar) tells Maggie that she has no idea who she really is--she doesn't even know what kind of eggs she likes, but just eats whatever kind the man she's with favors.  Maggie balks at this, but much later in the film, alone, having also jilted Ike, she makes every kind of egg for herself--soft-boiled, over-easy, scrambled--so that she finally can decide for herself which she prefers (it's Eggs Benedict). 


This was not the first time I'd discussed movies with clients (several of whom even worked in that arena--I practice in Los Angeles, after all).  But that instance stands out because it signaled a turning point in that client's treatment.  She was telling me that she felt like she imagined the character did, and, on a deeper level, that she really wanted to find her own self--to individuate and differentiate from her suffocatingly needy mother instead of trying to run away from her (emotionally and, at one point, literally).  Runaway Bride is unremarkable, but its message is sound:  a relationship means being separate so that you can come together without losing your self--it takes two to tango, after all.  So the film was, for my client, a source of revelation, but also, for our work, a vehicle of communication and a medium that I realized I could use again in the course of treatment.   A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes.




And, speaking of pictures, I attended a sandplay training recently given by a colleague.  A sandplay therapist stands as silent attendant to the client, who creates a scene with miniatures in the tray on his or her own.  The most significant part of the video below is what the therapist says at the end, which applies to every clinician, regardless of theoretical orientation or modality:




There is no interpretation involved in sandplay therapy, except for what the client might offer about his or her tray--its title, a story about it, etc.  It works particularly well with children, who often lack the language to describe their experiences.  After a session, the therapist documents the tray with a photograph so that the therapist has a visual record of the tray and can track the client's progress from session to session, sandtray to sandtray, picture to picture.  Internal chaos, anxiety, trauma--it's fascinating to see how these are manifested in and processed through the trays.  One might say that completed sandtrays are like movie frames generated directly from the psyche.


Which brings me to the psyches that generate movies.  This has been a fertile year for films with quite sophisticated takes on psychological states .  My last post was on the film Melancholia, written and directed by Lars von Trier, who reportedly has suffered from depression himself.  I frankly can think of no better film that depicts the symptoms of severe clinical depression--depressed mood, withdrawal, overwhelming fatigue (hypersomnia), distractibility, psychomotor retardation (Justine's inability to even lift her leg into the bathtub, even with help from her sister), diminished interest/pleasure (what we call anhedonia--the original title of Annie Hall, by the way), hopelessness.  


Another current film, Martha Marcy May Marlene (from writer-director Sean Durkin), could be a primer on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  The lead, played by Elizabeth Olsen, has all the hallmarks:  flashbacks to her rape, nightmares, hypervigilance, dissociation, avoidance of talking about what happened in the commune (read cult) from which she escaped.  And Martha may or may not be decompensating into psychosis.  The filmmaker wants it both ways, and this is where the film stumbles, particularly at the very end, when it seems to opt for the genre film climax instead of staying psychologically honest (pay attention to POV in the last sequence if you see the film).




Released a bit earlier and still playing is Take Shelter (writer-director Jeff Nichols), starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain; Shannon is the husband who is experiencing the onset of schizophrenia (which his mother--actor Kathy Bates--also has); the movie plays with whether his apocalyptic visions are internal or are prescient (we therapists know it's the former, which rather spoils things for us), just as Martha Marcy May Marlene plays with the "is she or isn't she" psychotic theme.




And what more poignant depiction of grieving--for a lost brother, for a loving mother, for the pain inflicted by an abusive father, could there be this year than Terence Malick's The Tree of Life?    (You can access my post on that film here.)


Traumatic grief is insightfully rendered in Mike Cahill and Brit Marling's Another Earth (which I wrote about previously here), about a woman (Marling, playing Rhoda) who becomes entwined with the man (John, played by William Mapother) whose family she accidentally killed in an auto accident.  Their respective fantasies of redemption are projected upon a planet that suddenly appeared in the sky one day (which in large part caused the accident, as Rhoda was looking out at it when her car crashed), and which appears to be a duplicate Earth.  Both characters ponder the possibility of parallel, purer lives for themselves there--the husband reunited with his family; Rhoda starting over with a clean slate.  The subtle beauty of the film is that these fantasies are implied but not dramatized--they are the unconscious soul of the film.  Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, this film has a startling open ending, but here, it works.  




And of course, one can't help but note that this is the second film this year, along with Melancholia, that involves the sudden appearance of a new planet in relation to Earth; both new planets function as objective correlatives that elicit the characters' deepest fears and hopes.  As Jung would posit, the fact that these two films came out this year is not coincidence, but synchronicity. (What this might mean in terms of the Zeitgeist is something to ponder.)


Jung does keep insisting to Freud in David Cronenberg's impeccable A Dangerous Method (written by Christopher Hampton, from his play The Talking Cure, based on a book by John Kerr), that there is no such thing as "coincidence."  But Freud, determined to protect psychoanalysis from discredit by the scientific community, won't brook anything that sounds like mysticism.  Yet Freud does believe in dreams--hardly the stuff of science, even today.  As Tom Cruise's character reflected at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, "no dream is ever just a dream."




Movies are essentially dreams--dreams and mirrors.  We watch them to learn how to live; to be truly, madly, deeply moved--whether it's manifested in tears or laughter.  They induce us, for 120 minutes, give or take, to (I'm paraphrasing Shelley in his Defence of Poetry), go out of our own nature to identify with what is not our own self; in short, to connect and to empathize.


God knows we need to re-learn empathy in these times of pepper-spraying cops and Black Friday shoppers.  And as neurobiological research now shows (Freud would have loved this!), we're hard-wired for attachment. Which brings me back to the dilemma that was facing my client--how to exist both with and without her mother.  It's the central dilemma of all relationships.  As Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) says at the end of Annie Hall,"...relationships--you know, they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but, uh, I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs."  




U2 put it beautifully on the first single of their 1987Joshua Tree album.  I love the video below:  not only for the song, but the way it demonstrates how concerts, even or especially stadium concerts, like movie theaters, induce us to connect.  They're the real churches of our age.



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