Can you imagine “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), a critically and commercially acclaimed bittersweet love story, as a therapeutic tool?
A Mike Figgis film, it is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by the same name, and stars Nicolas Cage as a screenwriter whose alcohol addiction has devastated his personal and professional life. With nothing to live for, he goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, meets a striking and intelligent prostitute, and they strike up a friendship based on non-interference. The film is a portrayal of substance abuse and prostitution, but more so about dependency, foolhardiness, hope in the face of certain defeat and also grace. A gold mine for psychologists and a must watch for anyone battling substance abuse, loneliness and despair.
So what exactly is Cinema Therapy?
According to Segen's Medical Dictionary, it is: “A form of therapy or self-help that uses movies, particularly videos, as therapeutic tools. Cinema therapy can be a catalyst for healing and growth for those who are open to learning how movies affect people and to watching certain films with conscious awareness. Cinema therapy allows one to use the effect of imagery, plot, music, etc. in films on the psyche for insight, inspiration, emotional release or relief and natural change. Used as part of psychotherapy, cinema therapy is an innovative method based on traditional therapeutic principles.”
According to experts, movies have the power to influence, positively as well as otherwise, thoughts, feelings and emotions and can thus be a meaningful mental health and also a life managing tool. Those who have worked with films say that when properly chosen and channelized, they have the ability to change the way we think, feel, and manage life's ups and downs.
Under expert guidance, Cinema Therapy can work equally well as self help, in one-on-one consulting or in group therapy. But it definitely cannot become a substitute for professional care, rather like music, aroma, dance and theatre based therapy, it is more an additive to therapy as it is conventionally understood. What is important is to determine the context in terms of its therapeutic value, its power to reach across and touch the viewer, and the overall content including the layering.
For instance a film like “Steel Magnolias” (1989) by Herbert Ross, though a comedy-drama, is more about dealing with loss due to death. An adaptation of Robert Harling's play by the same name, the story is about a few close-knit women in a small-town and their dealing with the death of one from their group.
Another example, this time on the impact of divorce, not just on the couple but everyone around, especially the couple's child(ren), is “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) by Robert Benton, based on a novel of the same name. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, the film won five Academy Awards and shows the terrible price that is usually paid once a couple takes their fight out of their home and into a court room.
And one can be sure that a concept or an idea has gone mainstream when books start getting published on a subject and become popular with others in that field. And so it is with Cinema Therapy. Some of the interesting ones include,
- Rent Two Films and Let's Talk in the Morning by John W. Hesley (psychologist and psychotherapist) and Jan G. Hesley (advanced clinical practitioner) that explores how therapeutic work interwoven with popular films enhances traditional therapy.
- Cinema as Therapy: Grief and Transformational Film by John Izod and Joanna Dovalis, which demonstrates how our experiences in the movie theatre create an opportunity to prepare psychologically for the inevitable losses we must all eventually face.
- The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning by Dr. Gary Solomon looks at the healing that movies can bring in issues like addictions, abuse, abandonment, alienation, bigotry, marital conflict, adoption, physical illness, etc.
While many therapists have started to use film clips and suggest movies to their patients, a few have even started to build their practice around cinema therapy.
One such expert is the above mentioned Dr Solomon, a professor of psychology, who not just uses movies with his regular patients but also helps prison inmates with this expertise. According to him, films "can have a positive effect on most people except those suffering from psychotic disorders”.
Another is Dr. Francis D. Baudry, training and supervising analyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Society, who feels that a good movie is alike to a dream, since both are visual and both communicate messages which must be interpreted, although the interpretation may differ from person to person.
Here are a few popular films and the therapeutic categories for which they have been used:
- Alice in Wonderland (1951, animation): finding the child within, making the journey, learning from life's experiences
- The Accidental Tourist (1988): death of a child, overcoming negative memories, learning to love again, moving on.
- Sleeping with the Enemy (1991): abusive relationship, domestic violence, haunted by the past, stalker, starting over.
- As Good as It Gets (1997): redemption, relationship struggles, cynicism, racism.
- Matchstick Men (2003): obsessive-compulsive disorder, father and daughter relationship, therapy, phobias.
Share with us in the comments any films that have helped you during a difficult phase / situation...