Cinematherapy

In 1892, one of the greatest inventions ever, paved the way for the big-screen experience. Thomas Edison was one of many inventors that brought the gift of moving pictures to the world. During my years in practice, I came to realize that regular talk-therapy is not always enough to generate changes in a patient’s internal life. Based upon the shifts I experienced in my own psyche after viewing films, I recognized that there would be value in the experience for my patients.

For years, as part of my practice, I have been recommending films to patients that can provide a parallel emotional experience to their own idiosyncratic psychological difficulties. Film has an extraordinary way of shaking things up both emotionally and psychologically, transporting us more deeply toward an emotional and sentient experience of our personal psychological struggles.

The idea of using film to spawn psychological shifts in my patients occurred to me many years ago after I was forced to confront my own attitudes and judgments about marital infidelity. I happened to watch The Bridges of Madison County (1995), a film that depicts an extra-marital affair between a house frau (Meryl Streep), and a photographer (Clint Eastwood), who shows up in her home town.

The story is simple, the film well made,  and it would be almost impossible to avoid the painful, emotional experience the film delivers. Through the purely emotional experience, I came to realize that the choice to leave a marriage or participate in an extramarital affair is agonizing and not always so black and white. By the end of the film, I had lost my former prejudices and came to understand that having a judgment about the subject was completely irrelevant. The powerful emotional participation in the film had caused a psychic shift in me that has been long-lasting.

Another excellent example of a film that delivers a parallel psychological experience for many patients is a B+ movie, Defending Your Life, a film made four years earlier, starring Meryl Streep (ironically) and Albert Brooks. The setting is heaven and the main character played by Brooks, is awakened to how he has foiled most of the opportunity that came to him during his earthly existence, because of his poor choices, always dominated by fear. “Daniel Miller” was terrified to take risks and make choices, a common problem with individuals who were never allowed to make their own choices as children. Fear-based thinking is a problem for the majority of Americans, generally programmed into us from our beginnings. Defending Your Life, like many films, provides the necessary cathartic emotional experience to influence change.

I have been studying and analyzing films since age 16 when I worked in a small, now defunct movie theatre in Portland. Additionally, I have been a Cinema Junkie from age four when I watched musicals and women in prison movies for hours on end on our tiny black and white television. Film has long been a powerful and transformative vehicle that throws us back on ourselves and can shake us out of our own peculiar psychological inertia. As part of a psychotherapy endeavor, it will always be a valuable tool for emotional and psychological growth.