Cine and Psyche:
Three films comment on therapy

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Jan. 10, 1998)

Modern psychology is about to turn 100 years old, with the approaching anniversary of Freud's publication of the "Interpretation of Dreams" in 1900. Despite all the Freud-bashing in recent years, it would be difficult to name any thinker who has exercised such an impact on the 20th century.

At the same time, though, a century is not a very long time in the consideration of mankind's total intellectual enterprises. Psychology remains a young science. In fact, there's not even agreement that its practical application, psychotherapy, is a science at all -- or should be -- and it's the butt of more jokes than religion in contemporary life.

Three recent movies have a good bit to say about psychotherapy and, for their effort, reveal a lot about our culture's reluctant fascination with the psyche. The movies are "As Good as It Gets," "Deconstructing Harry" and "Good Will Hunting."

Only the latter, starring Robin Williams as a psychologist, explicitly concerns itself with therapy, and it embodies the essential self-debate of contemporary psychology. Williams' task is to help a young genius who grew up in foster homes in rough Boston neighborhoods accept his intellectual gifts. The boy, played by Matt Damon, struggles with the fear of giving up the rowdy life of the body -- booze, sex, working construction and violence -- for the rarefied life of the mind.

His dilemma echoes Williams' own life confusions. He teaches psychology at a small, unimportant community college. The boy is brought to him by his own former classmate, an MIT faculty member and world-class intellectual, who believes the boy has an obligation to serve humankind with his mind.

The implication is that Williams too possesses such a mind but took the touchier-feelier path of individualism. And, of course, it is touchy-feely therapeutics by which Williams hugs the boy into self-realization that body and mind can function complementarily. At the movie's end, the boy has accepted his mind ... but follows the girl of his dreams anyway. Williams, who is recovering from the death of his wife, has likewise made a decision to leave his post and go wandering for a year or two.

The movie reflects two trends in contemporary psychology that, I confess, set my teeth on edge. Both are repudiations of psychology's imagined birthrights at the turn of the century. First is the notion that individualism is an appropriate goal in itself. Williams' colleague and friend is actually presented as something of a narcissistic buffoon in his assertions that we owe the world, society, the fruit of our gifts.

The psychoanalytical movement imagined itself, from the beginning, as a means of transforming society as much as its individuals. The spirit has been lost in contemporary thinking and practice. For us, psychology is a personal therapeutics, a path of entirely interior reflection that bypasses collective social concerns. Even Freud, seated out of view of his ruminating patients, never believed he was working just for the individual psyche. Much of his writing was about society, ideas and transformation at the global level. Jung, likewise, wrote and practiced on behalf of the world soul.

In touchy-feely therapeutics, we have no obligation other than to make ourselves happy. Anyone conscious who labors under the burden of a gift -- whether math genius or open-hearted love -- knows fully well that it is the cause of as much unhappiness as pleasure. To call personal happiness the goal of existence is therefore to require both some sacrifice of the gift and a turning away from the world of community building.

Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" touches on this theme too. Allen, of course, has made a career of satirizing his own tormented years upon the couch. His tortured self-ruminations often hilariously remind us of how narcissistic analysis really can become.

Allen examines, with almost uncomfortable honesty, the way his personal life remains a mess. But, unlike the characters in "Good Will Hunting," his life is redeemed by his work in the world -- by his art. Allen recognizes that personal happiness, no matter how insatiable our appetite for it, is no more our due than blonde hair and straight teeth. This insight -- falsely countered by contemporary psychology -- receives hyperbolic demonstration through the character of his ex-wife, an analyst played by Kirstie Alley. Cool as a cucumber when they meet, she is completely unglued by motherhood and adultery -- the messy little complications that can arise in the pursuit of personal happiness. In a hilariously metaphorical scene, she sits behind a patient, screaming obscenities at Allen in another room.

"As Good as It Gets" takes Allen's dilemma a step further. Jack Nicholson's character, an obsessive-compulsive and misanthropic novelist, demonstrates that even with a diagnosis and an effective treatment in your medicine cabinet, you don't get any better if you don't show some active concern for the world around you.

Nicholson, who secludes himself and writes love stories completely counter to his life experience, won't take his medication until he falls in love. Yes, he falls in love with a woman but what he really falls in love with, all of a sudden, is the world. He begins taking care of the people around him. Then, he begins to heal himself. The contemporary client often sits in a therapist's office waiting to feel happy or "comfortable" before moving out into the world. Nicholson's character demonstrates that in real life, the process is usually reverse.

The second bit of psychological fraud foisted by "Good Will Hunting" is that ideas are appropriately secondary to feelings. This has become a dogma of humanistic, anti-intellectual psychological culture. Obviously, the intellect is the demon in the film -- as it is in the other two films -- and it is only by thawing feelings, hugging the teddy-bear therapist of Robin Williams, that healing occurs and mentality finds its "correct" situation in the organism (as an inferior fetterment, even if especially keen).

In real life, this is both true and not true. To be without a feeling life is tragic, of course. But to be without a thinking life is just as tragic. Ideas, appropriately, have as much influence on us as our feelings do. We have become as dissociated from ideas as we once were from feeling. Think of everyone's favorite movie a few years ago, the horrible "Forrest Gump," an idiot with a heart of gold -- a myth that dies far harder than the myth of the soulless intellectual in our culture.

Therapeutic psychology today is a collection of mainly superficial ideas and techniques. All that Robin Williams' character seeks is catharsis, the unfreezing of feeling. Never in the film does his client -- or he, for that matter -- really seriously entertain the idea that we might owe the world something of ourselves. Williams simply delivers a sanctimonious speech about the subject but it is as intellectually hollow as a drum at a New Age ritual. In fact, the main image signaling his own change is a scene in which he packs up his books.

The most psychologically sophisticated movie I've seen recently, actually, is "Eve's Bayou." In that film, love, hate, the magical and the erotic are depicted in their marvelous ambiguity. A philandering but loved father's interaction with his daughter is remembered -- alternately as molestation and rejection of the daughter's own feelings.

Leaving the theater, I heard a woman express exactly the viewpoint of too much contemporary psychology. She was outraged that the movie refused to take a stand against the father by instead pointing to the way memory is a fantasy colored by our own drives, feelings and thoughts. Because, you see, we all want to know -- and I found myself asking this -- does Eve grow up to be happy? How can you be happy if you can't put your finger on the truth?

Well, happiness is beside the point: You just tell the story, the best you can with thought and heart.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan. 10, 1998

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