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Psychologists Are Giving Film Therapy Thumbs Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Susan had been engaged twice but never married. Now she was dating a man who frustrated her, alternately asking for more commitment and wanting to leave her.

In hope of winning him over, Susan, a 32-year-old, college-educated grocery store clerk, restyled her hair, dumped her friends and relinquished her hobbies.

Susan’s therapist listened to her account of the relationship and offered an unusual suggestion: Watch the 1992 movie “Singles,” depicting friends in their 20s in Seattle.

In the next session, Susan had an epiphany: Identifying with one of the film’s characters, she admitted she had sacrificed her identity in wooing her boyfriend and concluded he was not worth it.

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At a time when Hollywood is under fire for making films that glorify violence, a small but growing number of mental health professionals are employing movies with solid human themes to make breakthroughs in psychotherapy.

“Movie therapy” is the modern version of a technique developed by William C. Menninger in the 1930s known as bibliotherapy, in which clinicians prescribed books to help patients reach elusive truths.

The therapist asks the patient to carefully watch the prescribed movie on his own, examining when film characters strike a chord. Then the patient and therapist probe the patient’s emotional response: What attributes, for example, would the patient want to take from the protagonist? What obstacles did he face? Did this resemble the patient’s situation? Might the patient use a similar strategy?

It’s not that simply watching “On Golden Pond” will inspire you to patch a rift with an aging parent, or that “Stepmom” will bring peace to blended families, or that “Groundhog Day” will dislodge your complacency. It’s that therapists have another tool--the dominant storytelling art of the 20th century.

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“If a therapist said, ‘Do you realize your mother does this to you all the time?’ the patient might resist. In a film, the patient is seeing it happen to someone else and the therapist can artfully tie it all together,” said John W. Hesley, who with his therapist wife wrote the book “Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning.”

“Movies can be a lot like a Rorschach test--you get a movie and a reaction to it,” said Hesley, who practices in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and began suggesting movies to patients 20 years ago.

“It’s like an injection into the soul or intravenous therapy--it opens up issues that otherwise take a long time,” said Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor at Cal State L.A. who recently retired from private practice in Beverly Hills. “It can abbreviate the time necessary to pry open dark recesses. It allows you to see rapidly the whole arc of a problem.”

Some Oppose Film Prescriptions

Not all experts agree about the value of prescribing films. Psychologist Irene Goldenberg, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, said she believed sessions were more fruitful when the patient--rather than the therapist--initiated topics.

“It’s not as effective when you have a list of prescriptions: Read this, do this,” she said. “Movies are a way that an inarticulate therapist has of expressing himself.”

Even so, Goldenberg once recommended that a patient see the 1962 Blake Edwards film “Days of Wine and Roses,” about a couple who succumb to alcoholism. The result, however, was not what she intended: The patient ended up with a pornographic film with a similar title. Now, she prefers to discuss movies that patients bring up.

There have been no surveys of therapists who incorporate movies into their treatment, but several experts believe the number is increasing as movies have become, as Goldenberg says, “the currency of people’s thinking.”

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In professional journals, for instance, articles have begun to crop up with titles like “Use of a Horror Film in Psychotherapy” and “What Is This Movie Doing in This Psychoanalytic Session?”

When Hesley spoke about the topic last year at a conference held by the Texas Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists, he and organizers expected an audience of 35, but 200 therapists attended. Asked in a straw poll how many used films in therapy, 90% reported doing so on a regular basis, Hesley said.

The Hesleys and others who use movies tend to suggest ones available on video, rather than playing in a theater. That way, the patient can comfortably see the film more than once, replay significant scenes and take notes.

One of John Hesley’s patients was an engineer who had moved away as a younger man and broken off contact with his family. When he launched his own family, he started behaving like his father and ignored his own children. In session after session, Hesley was unable to get the patient to see the similarity. Then he suggested the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” in which an Iowa farmer hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond. The farmer finds meaning by trusting his intuition, and he also learns to forgive his father.

Hesley’s patient watched the film twice and dismissed it as a baseball movie. After seeing it a third time, the patient suddenly realized it was the protagonist’s father who appeared toward the end. Like the protagonist, the patient concluded that there were reasons explaining his father’s cold behavior when he was growing up. A week later, the patient visited his father, who was dying of lung cancer, Hesley said. The two men talked. The father told his estranged son about his regrets.

Dr. Martin Silverman, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, said some patients need the distance that movie therapy provides.

“It’s very difficult for people to have a direct, front-on collision and face their own struggles, fears and conflicts--it’s easier if they do it once removed,” he said.

For example, Silverman suggested to one patient that he see the emotionally laden 1957 Ingmar Bergman film “Wild Strawberries,” about a recently retired, much-revered physician who undergoes an identity crisis as he travels to receive an honorary degree. At one point, he dreams he is back in medical school and fails an exam.

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The movie was valuable to Silverman because it portrays the conflict between an individual’s external persona and his inner image, he said. His patient was a highly successful businessman who had rescued his father’s company from bankruptcy, outstripping his father’s achievements. His father, who had always made his son’s life difficult, was now in poor health. The patient’s once-thriving business failed, doomed by reversals in the marketplace.

The patient saw the movie twice, and brought it up in sessions for several weeks. “Inside himself, he superstitiously, guiltily interpreted his business descending as punishment” for having succeeded, feeling a lack of worthiness that the movie character experienced, Silverman said. He, like the protagonist in the movie, had an external identity that conflicted with his own view of himself. He was able to start to resolve his turmoil.

Sometimes it’s not the glimmer of self-recognition that a movie provides but an idea it offers that eases the patient’s distress.

Cal State L.A.'s Fischoff, for instance, suggested that a patient mourning her husband’s death see the hit 1990 movie “Ghost,” in which a man is killed and tries to warn his grieving girlfriend that she is in danger. In the movie, the man is able to say goodbye to his girlfriend and she, in turn, is able to let go. One exchange in the film comforted the patient--when the man says he has taken his girlfriend’s love with him.

“That phrase allowed the patient to understand and to have solace in the belief that the love they had wasn’t gone,” Fischoff said.

Dr. Walter Jacobson, a psychiatrist recently in UCLA’s residency program, and others say they use not only movies but sometimes also suggest books, poems, songs--whatever they believe will have an impact upon patients and provoke a thoughtful exchange. Jacobson will even bring up episodes from the television shows “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek.”

George Bailey’s ‘Life’ Lesson

If you are wondering when someone in this discussion will bring up “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jacobson will see you now. Jacobson uses the 1946 movie--in which a guardian angel shows suicidal George Bailey the majesty of his accomplishments--for patients who tie their self-worth to material worth. When they tell him they do not like themselves, he points to Bailey, who, though poor, is the spiritually richest man in town.

“Estimable acts develop self-esteem, then you get self-confidence and pull yourself out of depression,” he said.

When Jacobson is confronted by a patient who cannot rise above negative thinking, he may throw out the wisdom of Yoda from “The Empire Strikes Back.” (He doesn’t suggest clients watch the film, since most have seen it, he said.)

The psychiatrist reminds the patient of the scene in which Yoda is training young Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi warrior.

“Do--or do not,” Yoda tells the impatient young man. “There is no ‘try.’ ”

Has a movie changed your life or helped you think through a personal problem? Share your experience with others in an online discussion on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/movie-therapy

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Frequently Prescribed Movies

Therapist: Jan Hesley, coauthor of “Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning.”

Movie: “Matilda” (1996): About a young girl who grows up in an abusive family but makes her dreams come true through self-reliance.

Lessons Learned:

It’s possible to overcome a history of abuse.

You must be able to take risks in an unhealthy situation.

Children are resilient; one nurturing adult can make a difference.

Therapist: John Hesley, coauthor of “Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning.”

Movie: “Ordinary People” (1980): About how the death of a son affects a family.

Lessons Learned:

Guilt is often a function of injustice, but must be overcome for growth.

Death or serious illness of child exacebrates existing family problems.

Therapist: Stuart Fischoff

Movie: “Dad” (1989): About a busy executive who becomes his father’s caretaker.

Lessons Learned:

Shows how you can reconnect to a significant person in your life.

Helps illustrate what a father can mean to a son.

Therapist: Walter Jacobson

Movie: “It’s A Wonderful Life.” (1946): About suicidal George Bailey, who thinks he’s failed and is rescued by an angel.

Lessons Learned:

The value of not tying self-worth to material worth.

In helping others, you will help yourself feel better.


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