Sitting in a Berkeley bakery one morning last summer, I came across a flier: "Have you ever left a movie theater full of emotions, insights, and inspiration?" it asked. "Did you want to share your impressions and feelings right away? Did the movie make you reflect on your own life experiences?"
I chewed on my muffin and read on. "Then you might be interested in taking this a step further by making use of the transformational power certain films could have for you when you take advantage of their impact. Cinema therapy offers some tools for this process."
Someone had actually coined the phrase "cinema therapy." The flier was decorated in small spirals surrounded by squiggly sun rays, the sure mark of New Age hooey. There was a picture of psychotherapist Birgit Wolz, giving the camera a smile that can only be described as the Therapist Knows Best Gaze. Immediately, she looked like a story to me: The shrink who prescribes movies. How groovy. How laid-back. How Berkeley.
"Used as part of psychotherapy," her flier continued, "cinema therapy is an innovative method based on traditional therapeutic principles. Even outside a therapist's office, following certain guidelines for choosing films and watching them consciously can support personal and spiritual growth."
Now I was laughing -- this was reading-the-goofy-ass-fliers-in-a-Berkeley-bakery therapy. What really got me was the notion of a licensed therapist sending real-life patients with real-life problems to search for real-life solutions at a Tom Cruise matinee. The movie industry, as many a critic has pointed out, tends to serve life in a bowl with whipped cream and a supersweet cherry for the drive home. The recipe rarely changes. Even an ambitious script such as Adaptation, which claims to challenge the formula, ends only after the protagonist experiences a sobering epiphany -- love thyself, and ye shall be loved -- which is then punctuated by a ride into the sunset.
Later that day I called around and found that cinema therapy had been in practice for about fifteen years, and that Wolz was the Bay Area's go-to film shrink. She hosted group sessions where people paid to sit and discuss the feelings evoked by movies such as About Schmidt. She taught a cinema therapy class at JFK University in Orinda, and had recently completed the manuscript for her book on the topic, eMotion Picture Magic, which she expects will be published in about six months. Recently, The Therapist, a California trade magazine to 25,000 family therapists, had asked Wolz to pen a movie column. Clearly, her brand of treatment was spreading.
To buy into cinema therapy, a client needed to buy into Carl Jung. In fact, were he alive today, Jung might argue that movies display his theory of archetypes perfectly: They're literally projected onto a gigantic screen. Jung said man was born with a "preconscious psychic disposition that enables him to react in a human manner," and that all the mind really does to make sense of the world is seek out a few characters to project its images onto. In other words, though the details of our lives may change, we tend to relate them to the same ol' story lines. Just like Hollywood.
Dr. Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor emeritus at UCLA, has been critical of cinema therapy. The technique, she says, is not only lazy, but also dangerously entangles the counselor's life with the client's. "It's like a therapist telling a client to go read a book that the therapist was really moved by or that meant a lot to them, when it's not about the therapist's feelings and experiences; it's about the client's," she says.
In her book, Wolz lays out dozens of films and the emotional themes she plucked from them. For example, she writes, "Anyone who is struggling with a life transition and feels scared of an uncertain future might benefit from watching Under the Tuscan Sun. Because the plot shows a courageous woman rebuilding her life after a devastating loss, several of my clients found it to have positive therapeutic effects."
But was the lead character actually "courageous"? Or merely entitled and then disappointed, which results in something closer to pathetic? I hadn't yet spoken to Wolz, but a quick Web search indicated she'd been written about several times, and usually in a tone that I'd already pegged for her: Nutty, with good intentions. So I dropped the idea and moved on.
A few months later Wolz e-mailed the Express to pitch a monthly movie column. Per protocol, the editorial coordinator forwarded the e-mail to an editor, who, finding it humorous, printed it and posted it outside his office door. Cynical journalists like to make fun of silly column pitches.
But with Wolz back in the fray, I mentioned to the same editor that I actually had looked into writing about cinema therapy. The brainstorming session that resulted led to an idea. I would be her patient: Buy the popcorn, lie down on the couch, and experience for myself -- or not -- the "transformational power" of cinema.
Wolz was game. Although she wasn't paid for her services, she agreed to participate, and let me tape-record our sessions, which took place weekly over the course of two months at her Piedmont Avenue office. Before we began, I assured the therapist that all the heavy lifting on my psyche had been done years ago, so we'd probably just crack the surface -- if even that could be cracked by a handful of movies.
"This is an interesting way to get into it," she commented in one of our first conversations. "Most people just ask me what movies their readers should go see."
Or: Did you feel guilt when Sean Penn rushed the crime scene?
Wolz' second-story office looks like the cozy middle room of a typical San Francisco flat: asymmetrical, with Victorian windows and a slightly tilted floor, thanks to the century-old foundation. The wooden bookshelves are lined with dozens of action figures, from Lisa Simpson to Darth Vader -- all the better to practice on before you confront your real-life dark force or estranged sister. In cinema therapy, though, we'd be assuming the feelings and traits of the characters on the silver screen. "We'll even do some light hypnotherapy," Wolz promised. "That'll come later."
First, we sized each other up. Wolz has the well-practiced nod of a therapist who is used to listening. She grew up in Berlin and speaks with a made-for-TV German accent. We sat in cushy leather chairs facing each other a few feet apart, knee-to-knee, and did the "So ... here we are" pause.
We smiled and exhaled.
"What are some of your favorite movies?" she asked. After a little thought, I answered: Shawshank Redemption. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Barfly. The Princess Bride. Recently I'd seen Mystic River, I added, and was blown away.
"Tell me more about that."
The whole thing, I said. Most major Hollywood pictures don't deal with molestation, for one. The subject was dark and the characters were gray. And the ending left a strange, unresolved taste in my mouth. The story had something to say about life, I told her.
"What scene in Mystic River was powerful for you?"
I considered it. The one scene that really got me, I told her, was when Sean Penn learns his daughter's body has been found and the police have to hold him back from the crime scene. "He just keeps screaming: 'Is my daughter in there? Is my daughter in there? Is my daughter in there?'" I said. "And he's devastated. ... I mean, I could feel the tears well up, and I can't remember the last time I cried in a movie theater."
"Well, yeah. A little. I didn't sob or anything. Just kind of welled up."
"Why?" Wolz asked.
Why had I cried right then? I didn't know. A parent had just realized his kid was dead, and that's a heavy moment for anyone. Penn was so convincing, I told her.
"But why did you have such a strong reaction to this scene as opposed to other scenes?"
I thought about it before responding: I empathized with Penn's character, I told the therapist. I could recall my mother saying hundreds of times that if she ever lost a child, she'd rather die.
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