In a scene familiar to many movie lovers, Melvin appears at Carol’s Brooklyn apartment in the middle of the night. He is a writer trying to escape his isolated existence and struggling mightily with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His visit is another attempt to woo Carol, a waitress who has seen him at his worst and is skeptical about the possibility of a romantic relationship between them.
Melvin: It feels a little confined here. Let's take a walk.
Carol: See… it's four in the morning. A walk sounds a little screwy to me, if you don't mind.
Melvin: If you need an excuse, there's a bakery on the corner. There's a shot it'll open soon. That way we're not screwy—we’re just two people who like warm rolls.
Carol: [facial expression softens] Okay.
This exchange between the main characters in James Brooks’ As Good As It Gets is a brief comic vignette, yet it conveys a powerful message. The fine line between “normal” and “screwy” behavior is primarily drawn according to one’s framing and perception of the circumstances. This mainstream comedy gives the audience glimpses of an individual with mental illness who is making progress in his treatment and forging meaningful connections with others. We develop compassion for Melvin as he deals with phobias and compulsions. But we also understand Carol, a weary single mother caring for a sick child, and her hesitance to let Melvin into her life.
As with any media presentation based on difficult life circumstances, those who live with similar situations could take issue with the way details are presented. Someone suffering from O.C.D. might think the topic isn’t suited for comedy, or that the story ends too neatly. After all, the phrase “Hollywood ending” has endured for a reason. Yet just one scene that rings true to a viewer can be all it takes to positively affect them, possibly in a profound way.
Why does film have the propensity to touch audiences? The exchange between Melvin and Carol, expressed in text above, lays comparatively flat and lifeless on the page. Film engages the senses and brings characters to life. Actors supply chemistry, facial expression, body language, voice inflection and emotion. Those qualities combine with production elements such as script, sets and locations, costumes, camera angles, editing, lighting, sound effects and music. If executed well, the final package has the power to move viewers at a visceral level. Move them to act. Move them to reflect on their actions and how they affect people around them. To model behaviors they find valuable and avoid those that repel them. To use communication techniques they’ve never tried. To explore scenarios and possible courses of action from the safety of their comfortable seats.
Or maybe the film’s impact is simply to comfort audience members by mirroring a situation similar to theirs in a positive light that they were unable to see before. Perhaps the notion of wanting warm rolls instead of being “screwy” seems revolutionary. In the case of the whimsical movie Benny & Joon, which deals with schizophrenia, the viewer could gain hope from the suggestion that romantic love and independence are possibilities in Joon’s future.
Mental health professionals have long since recognized the potential for film as a therapeutic tool. Connections between psychiatry and film have been drawn by professionals since the medium became popular in the early twentieth century. The book Psychiatry and the Cinema by Drs. Glen and Krin Gabbard quotes an early film scholar, psychoanalyst Hans Sachs. Sachs wrote in a 1928 article, “The film seems to be a new way of driving mankind to conscious recognition… by making the inexpressible expressible by means of displacement on to a small incidental action.” Dr. William Menninger, founder of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS, was an early proponent of the use of artistic works of fiction as therapeutic tools.
As the twentieth century progressed, film became a major component of American entertainment. Eventually, access to films greatly increased with the advent of rental services. Books such as Reel Therapy: How Movies Inspire You to Overcome Life's Problems (Solomon), Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies in Psychotherapy (Hesley & Hesley) and Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology (Wedding, Boyd, Niemiec) became guides for mental health professionals on the incorporation of film into psychotherapy. One proponent notes that with the proliferation of managed care, films can be used as a way for patients to further the therapeutic process on their own time at minimal cost. The practice of using film in therapy remains well regarded and is frequently used today.
Despite its promise for emotional enlightenment or use in treatment, professionals are quick to point out that film has its limitations. Situations are sometimes inaccurately portrayed. Due to the push for box office success, flash over substance is a frequent drawback to film content. As Hesley points out, “Not all movies feature healthy role models or realistic scenarios…Take them carefully and thoughtfully.” Steve Franklin, MSW, LCSW and frequent film discussant for MHA-EM and other film discussion groups says, “I always try to remember and remind the audience when I do a movie presentation that it’s only a movie. It is a good starting point for conversation, but it would be best not to expect clinical authority from a director or screenwriter.”
Each book mentioned above contains lists of films the authors find to be helpful in conjunction with therapy. Lists are categorized by subject matter or diagnosis. Another resource is cinematherapy.com, which includes a large film listing that draws from the books by the Hesleys and Solomon, as well as others. The website provides broad categories, including a variety of physical illnesses, social and family issues and one simply titled “inspiration.”
If you think of movies solely as sources of entertainment, perhaps look a little closer. With some careful observation and introspection, you may get more out of it than a bowl of popcorn.
# # # #