The Cinema Therapy Newsletter #5, July 24, 2003
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star In The Spotlight:
The idea that movies can have a profound healing effect is relatively new. And the truth is, it may well take many years before it becomes a commonly accepted point of view. But incidents like an interview last week on the widely popular TV show Larry King Live go a long way in raising public awareness.

David Smith -- ex-husband of Susan Smith who was convicted of drowning her two boys, Michael and Alex, in 1994 -- was featured in a lengthy interview that aired on the King show July 17. Most of the interview plumbed the more sensational aspects of the sad case, but toward the end, interviewer Nancy Grace who was filling in for King, asked Smith about his recent re-marriage and how it was that he pulled himself out of the year-long depression that followed the loss of his family. Smith said it was due to his experience watching a movie:

SMITH: I lost everything. I lost the reason I was getting up and -- you know, getting up every day and breathing in and out because our marriage was gone. So I mean, all I had was Michael and Alex. And they were the reason I was, you know, putting two feet on the floor every morning. Then that was gone. I didn't know what to do anymore. I mean, there -- for about a year there, I just -- I just went where anyone told me to go, what they told me. OK, David, you got get up today, and you've got to go to this place. OK, David, in two days you're going to have to go and do this, and this and this. And I'd say, OK. Whatever. Just like a puppet, almost, because I couldn't function.

GRACE: David, do you remember when you first started coming out of it?


GRACE: What happened that day?

SMITH: I think it was -- it was due to a movie, is what got me out of it.

GRACE: What?

SMITH: "The Shawshank Redemption." It's a good movie.

GRACE: Well, how did that snap you out?

SMITH: I was watching TV and it was on. And there was a quote in that movie that Morgan Freeman says. And the quote was, "In life, we do have two choices. We can either get busy living or get busy dying. What do you want to do?" And I just -- I just started playing that over and over in my head. And I realized that just laying in this bed for days, that wasn't what I wanted to do. And I said, I've got to -- I've got to get busy living. And then that was -- it started going uphill from there. But that's what I attribute it to, in my life, was to that movie.

Go to the CNN archives for the entire transcript of the interview.

The San Francisco Chronicle was originally set to run an article July 7 or 8 by film critic Stephen Winn. The piece is part of a two-part series on art and therapy and features an interview with Birgit Wolz about cinema therapy. The series finally ran on July 23 and 24. This article carries the part about cinema therapy, which comes near the end.

star Success Stories:
As a way of encouraging all of us in our personal or professional use of cinema therapy, I would like to publish CT success stories as a regular feature of this newsletter. Please send your story to
me. Here's the story of one of my clients, who I will call Nancy in order to conceal her real identity.

Nancy came to see me about her anger. It was threatening her marriage to her husband Rob. We worked with a number of techniques that showed a moderate success, but her real breakthrough came after she watched the movie "Changing Lanes" using techniques of conscious awareness I taught her.

The film is the story of two characters, each of whom has a tendency to get very angry. They have a fender bender on the way to separate court dates. The attorney, Gavin, hands Doyle, a recovering alcoholic, a card with his personal and insurance info, then rushes off with a brusque, "Better luck next time". The brief encounter has serious repercussions for each when they show up in court. Each blames the other and seeks revenge. In the end, both learn that their own anger is their worst enemy.

Nancy watched the movie with her husband Rob and they almost got into an intense argument near the beginning of the film. But instead of pursuing their argument as they normally would have done, her conscious awareness state of mind allowed her to stop the film and they calmly discussed their different reactions to the characters. She told me about the experience at our next session.

She identified with the character Doyle, and became very upset at Gavin's flip "Better luck next time" comment. Rob, on the other hand, took an indifferent attitude, which Nancy mistakenly perceived as him siding with Gavin and "against her". She was able to see how her anger acted as a blinding mechanism and prevented her from seeing alternate, more acceptable interpretations of Rob's response, that he was simply seeing both character's positions. She reported feeling as if she had awaken from a dream.

Later, when she talked again with Rob after they finished viewing the film together, she felt the experience gave them both a new, light-hearted way of communicating with each other about her anger problem. Nancy became much more able to manage her anger and Rob was impressed with the progress she had made in therapy.

star Empathy and Cinema Therapy Research:
Claudia Biris, a sociology professor at Spiru Haret University in Bucharest, Romania and a therapist in training reports on her ongoing cinema therapy research. Her interest in understanding her psychology students' emotional empathy level prompted her to test her 10 students using the Mehrabian-Epstein (Q.M.E.E.) battery.
It contains three questions directly related to movies:

1. "Sometimes, at the movie theater, it amuses me that many people cry and blow their noses."

2. "It's silly to let yourself be impressed by books or movies."

3. "When I watch a movie I let myself get caught up in the action."

Commenting on the correlation between her student's gender, their scores for emotional empathy, and their reactions to watching several assigned films, Claudia writes:

Only two students -- the only two boys in the group -- have low levels of emotional empathy. One of them works in the police forces. He graduated from the Police Academy and he is a polygraph specialist. He told me how during his Academy years he was trained "not to feel much," as he says.

Even if I had not tested him, I would think he would have good scores for cognitive empathy. If we remember Hesley & Hesley's point of view about therapeutic viewing, this student was analysis-oriented (especially during the first film A Beautiful Mind). He was preoccupied with analysis and finding solutions.

Something interesting happened when he watched Dead Poets Society. He told me later, after the viewing, that he could barely watch the movie. After the first five minutes of viewing he had the impulse to stop the movie. He only watched it because it was a homework assignment. The reason he couldn't watch it was because of the traditional and rigid atmosphere of Welton Academy with its four pillars (Tradition, Honor, Discipline and Excellence) . It reminded him of his experience at the Police Academy which had a similar environment (his "shadow"?).

The suicide that the character Neil commits in the end of the movie moved him a lot. He remembered that 15 of his colleagues (out of 100) killed themselves after the graduation. The movie also brings to light a rigid family, where the father is the only member that can decide for the whole family. It's difficult to be an adolescent and it's more difficult to be an adolescent in this kind of family (I myself grew up in a quite conservative family!)

There was another student, a girl, who perfectly identified with Neil. She still can't stand up for her point of view, and she has difficulty saying "No" when she wants to.

starThanks for reading. I encourage and welcome feedback.

-Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT.,
Canyon, CA, USA

-Franklin Seal
freelance writer
Moab, UT, USA