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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

Changing Lanes

Director: Roger Michell
Producer: Scott Rudin
Screenwriters: Chap Taylor, Michael Tolkin
Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Ben Affleck, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, William Hurt, Amanda Peet
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2002


As he is rushing off to court from a fender bender, attorney Gavin, hands the other man involved in this accident, Doyle, his card and says Better luck next time! then accidentally drops a signed form that means millions to his firm. Although Doyle is stuck with a flat tire, Gavin refuses to give him a ride. Doyle, who is a recovering alcoholic, finds the attorneys form. When Gavin shows up at court without it, the judge gives him until the end of the day to produce it or his firm forfeits the money.

Meanwhile, Doyle wants to convince his ex-wife not to move with their kids to Oregon. He hopes that by keeping his family nearby he might save his failing marriage. To accomplish that, he needs to prove to a divorce judge that he is solvent and stable and plans to do so by showing him that the bank has approved his home loan. But because he shows up twenty minutes late, he finds the case has been decided without him. Blaming Gavin, he takes out his rage by taunting him with a page faxed from the form that he found. Gavin retaliates by getting a hacker friend to artificially ruin Doyles credit rating.

A spiraling series of attacks and counterattacks eventually leads both men to see that their worst enemy is their own anger. Gavin and Doyle keep trying to demonstrate their individual power by acting out their anger at the other person. For one whole day they do not have the awareness or the inner containment that would help them with their destructive emotions.

The two characters hit an emotional bottom. But they learn from their experience. By the end of the day, each man's own anger scares him more than the other person. After reacting only to the actions of the other in unconscious ways for a long time, both became aware of themselves, their own behavior, and the subsequent consequences. This enabled both men to start taking responsibility for their actions, develop empathy for the other, and find inner peace again.

Cinema Alchemy:

Nancy came to see me to work on her sudden outbreaks of anger. She was afraid that her uncontrolled outbursts might damage her marriage. Things became more manageable when she learned to become aware of the very first onset of rage toward her husband, Rob. Exploring the origins of her rage also lead to enlightening insights. But Nancys real breakthrough happened after I asked her to watch Changing Lanes with conscious awareness according to the guidelines below.

Nancy watched this video together with Rob. In our next session she told me that at first she completely identified with Doyle and his anger when Gavin said: "Better luck next time!" She started yelling at Gavin on the TV screen. How can you do this! She almost got into a fight with her husband who had a more removed perspective and questioned Doyles response to the insult. Nancy felt angry about the indifference she thought she had perceived in Rob. In her already upset state she could not clearly hear what he said. But she remembered my suggestion about conscious awareness and noticed what had just happened inside her. The couple turned off the video and talked.

Having just seen on the screen almost exactly what she experienced inside, it was much easier for Nancy to step back and reflect on what happened as her anger rose inside her. Normally, when she would feel herself being drawn into her rage, it was impossible to take this conscious internal step back. Now, with the support of the distancing effect of the movie, plus her effort to become more aware of her emotional responses, Nancy suddenly saw how she had been caught in a very familiar pattern. She was surprised how absurd her previous angry reaction looked to her now and clearly recognized the process in which she tended to fall into blind rages over and over in the past. After they talked, the couple finished watching the rest of the movie. Nancy had a more detached and clearer perspective during this part of the film .

My client told me, I really get it now. When Im angry I do not hear what he really says. With more conscious awareness her perspective opened up to what he tried to communicate. Now she understood what Rob really meant and that he was including both characters perspective. From this new angle she thought that his comments about the movie characters just reflected his way of seeing things in general, which now seemed acceptable to her. Nancy felt as if she had awaked from a bad dream. For the first time, she understood on a deep level how her anger- induced blinding mechanism had completely distorted her perspective of reality and how it robbed her of her capacity to see things more objectively.

The movie also provided a voice for her to communicate something she was unable to explain before. Previously, Rob never took seriously her efforts to work on her rage in therapy. Now, during their discussion, he saw his wife struggling and conquering her inner demon right in front of him. Rob saw two movies: Changing Lanes and Nancys process. He was able recognize Nancys efforts as well as her level of awareness and became very impressed with the progress she had made in her inner work.

Weeks later Nancy told me she had experienced only one small episode of rage, which ended almost immediately when her husband mention the character Doyles name in a lighthearted way. As she was able to become centered and rational again, Nancy now could address more clearly the real reason for her anger. Rob was able to listen calmly and hear what she had to say.

Guidelines for watching movies with conscious awareness:

Handout given before the movie:

• While watching the movie, sit comfortably and relax.

• Pay attention to the film and to yourself.

• Observe how the movies images, ideas, conversations, and characters affect your emotions, physical sensations, or your breathing.

• Notice what happens when these throw you off balance because they trigger undesired emotions. In all likelihood, whatever unbalances you in response to a movie character or scene is similar to what unbalances you in daily life.

• You might let yourself get completely absorbed by the movie for a while. Notice your sensations when you come back to awareness of yourself.

Questions after the movie:

• Do you remember your feelings and sensations, or whether your breathing changed throughout the movie?

• Notice what you liked and what you did not like or even hated about the movie.

• Did you identify with one or several characters?

• Did a character develop certain capacities that you would like to develop as well?


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy