Whenever reality starts to pinch, people always go on to seek some momentary consolation – or at least explanation – in films. But for the movie medicine to work, it has to be selected correctly.
When we all sat locked in our homes, one thing seemed obvious: somewhere, someone was surely writing a screenplay about a couple in crisis who, when stuck inside the four walls of their apartment, fall in love all over again. The idea was so predictable it simply had to come true – if for no other reason than to get it over with. And here it was: in January 2021, we saw the premiere of the comedy Locked Down, the quintessential story of two people who had nothing in common until lockdown brought them together. It wasn’t made by amateurs, either (written by Steven Knight, directed by Doug Liman, starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor), but turned out to be a flop, nevertheless. The creators failed to find the right tone – serious where the scene needed some humour, and vice versa. It wasn’t much fun to watch a comedy about the things we were all currently struggling with at home – instead of bringing us comfort, Locked Down brought us down. However, the idea of taking the edge off the traumas of reality through cinematic fantasy was right. And there are many precedents to it, too.
Great Depression, great cinema
Movie medicine has often been administered to the public. Still, it is a very delicate procedure that requires precisely measured doses of reality and fiction. Get too close, and it hurts. Escape too far, and your point gets lost. Botched proportions seem to be the core reason why the creators of Locked Down failed in their attempt, along with the unfortunate timing. In their rush to overtake the competition, they missed the mark – when the movie premiered, the reality of it was too raw (and it still is). Historically, whenever cinema has approached Momentous Events, a little distance has usually helped.
Of course, many movies about World War II were rolled out during the conflict (Casablanca premiered in 1942) but back then, Hollywood was a propaganda machine for the ‘righteous war’. It was American cinema’s job to lift spirits and motivate the nation to fight. Meanwhile, when the US got tangled up in a much dirtier conflict in Vietnam, the first important movies didn’t come out until several years after American troops had retreated (The Deer Hunter – three years, Apocalypse Now – four, Platoon – 11 years after the war). On top of that, they are hardly uplifting.
The collapse of the Twin Towers wasn’t told on-screen until five years later, in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). The tone of the movie was clearly meant to be both solemn and comforting. Before that, popular culture did everything to repress the trauma. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was an interesting example of such erasure. The teaser, created before the attack, shows a group of bank robbers escape in a helicopter only to get caught in a giant net the superhero had spun between the Twin Towers. After 9/11, the teaser was pulled from cinemas. The creators went as far as to remove the World Trade Center’s reflection in Spider-Man’s eye on the movie poster. It was, of course, meant as a sign of respect, even if it was somewhat overzealous. But it also contained a clear message: we don’t want Spider-Man to remind us of a real tragedy. We want escapism to remain just a fantasy.
After all, this approach worked in the 1930s, when Hollywood tried to make the Great Depression more bearable. During its Golden Age, Tinseltown fed the public with easily-digested comedies and musicals – the classic escapist content. There was little competition (radio), cost remained relatively low (10-25 cents), and a single movie theatre ticket offered a newsreel, a cartoon, one episode of a movie serial and two pictures (picture A and picture B). Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic choreographies (such as 42nd Street) provided a distraction from the toil of everyday life, just like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did, elegantly dancing the sorrows away. The Marx Brothers needled high society with their anarchist jokes, helping the public vent and mock the rich. In Gone with the Wind (1939), the characters showed unwavering strength against historical adversities, while The Wizard of Oz (1939) offered a momentary escape in a Technicolour fantasy world. Mickey Mouse and King Kong ruled the screens.
Escape to the cinema
It’s all rather unsurprising. After all, this is exactly how popular cinema works – it’s a two-hour-long energy bar, a condensed therapy session. Genre-specific narrative tropes have an almost-therapeutic logic to them. A screenwriter’s job is to identify a problem and then dismantle it attractively: first, there is a conflict, then catharsis, a solution, the closing credits. Even the classic scenario recipe, known as ‘want vs need’, has a somewhat therapeutic feel to it. In this approach, the on-screen conflict should be based on the dissonance between what the main characters want and what they need. The whole trick is to help them realize which one is more important (the latter, obviously).
Still, cinema remains mainly a way of escaping reality. But this escapism can take on different forms – two, let’s say. The first one helps us run away from ourselves, working like a temporary anaesthetic that turns out to be not only short-lasting but also short-sighted. Why? Paradoxically, it makes us more susceptible to how media prey on our weaknesses. The other type of escapism offers us useful fantasy. In this case, cinema becomes a training site of sorts, giving us a chance to work through some problems in the safe space of cinematic simulation. Fiction can be an existential trial run of sorts, a school that not only helps us learn, but also defines the limits of growth. When Harold Bloom claimed that Shakespeare invented the modern man, he might have meant something similar – art imitates life, but life can imitate art, too. There is room for everything in there: entertainment, contemplation, reinvention, growth. Just look in the mirror of a movie screen and draw your own conclusion.
Of course, it would be easy to mock such an approach as pop-psychology (popcornology?), life-coach speak. One quick look at the Google results for cinematherapy – such as Advanced Cinematherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Finding Happiness One Movie at a Time – and it feels almost like looking at a meme. Real therapy is almost never smooth and linear, and personal problems can hardly ever be solved movie-style (with one well-aimed shot, a spectacular dance number, a passionate kiss, or by the simple display of two magical words, ‘The End’). But cinematherapy – as introduced by Gary Solomon – can be practised in a very serious way. It is not a distraction, but a tool used to give the problem some structure before confronting it. Cinema’s allegoric potential, along with the discoveries of cognitive science and other fields of research, is functionalized so that it can help us access its cathartic power. Movie-watching becomes the first step towards proper therapy.
The good old projection identification mechanism also comes in handy here, allowing the viewer to project their own emotions onto the film. Moreover, cinema operates in both verbal (through dialogue) and non-verbal, sensual and physical ways (crying, laughter, fear, excitement), allowing us to feel things we often find difficult to express. It may seem contradictory, but as a result, it lends us a language to name those emotions. After the screening, when discussing the film, we magically begin to talk about ourselves. Rather than being a process of interpretation, film-watching turns out to be an exercise in introspection. In such situations, the movie isn’t there to be solved, but to help us solve our own issues; thus, it becomes a lockpick of sorts. In a way, it resembles the process of analysing dreams – except the ‘dream’ is shown to us on the movie screen.
I was not surprised when I saw Groundhog Day (1993) among the pictures recommended for cinematherapy sessions. The simple plot device – a frustrated misanthrope, forced to repeat a single day of his life countless times – turns out to be remarkably capacious meaning-wise. Some viewers believe it to be an allegory for depression that makes all days feel the same; others see it as the metaphysical tale of a lost soul, wandering through purgatory. Never mind. The basic premise (a man working on his character) and its upward trajectory are the main aspects of the plot. Harold Ramis gives us some hope, letting us believe there is light at the end of the tunnel, while Bill Murray leaves us in stitches, even though he spends most of the movie hating the world and its people.
The ‘feel-good experience’ is at the movie’s core – it’s the topic, narrative scheme and the anticipated reaction of the viewer. What’s best, Groundhog Day works both as simple entertainment and an invitation to deeper (self)analysis. During the times of a different, lockdown-induced purgatory, such films are more precious than ever.
Today, it seems that TV shows are even better for lifting spirits. That’s the paradox of modernity right there: in an attempt to soothe the streaming torment of reality, we get hooked up to the stream of TV anaesthetic. Instead of the instant painkiller of a single feature film, we sign up for dozens of episodes, several seasons of binge-watching therapy treatment. On the one hand, it’s not so great. After all, TV series are a pop-cultural ‘purgatory’, working against the premises of good therapy as they maintain the status quo, remaining forever trapped in their problems. But on the other hand, they can be a helpful device of introspective exploration. The TV-show formula is very useful in that aspect. At the very core of it, there is a focus on details – we watch the characters from up close for an extremely long time. Cinema blows problems out of proportion for effect and then offers us a fast-forward therapy session. TV shows have nowhere to rush – they have much more time on their hands.
The modern-day TV revolution has been built upon careful observation and analysis of complex characters (who, unfortunately, happen to be mostly male): Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White. The Sopranos (1999–2007) actually begins with the main character’s psychotherapy session and often uses psychoanalysis and its tools to give Tony a more multi-faceted personality. If a TV series (or a film) can have any ‘therapeutic’ advantage over going to a real-life counsellor, it would probably be the fictional dimension of the experience it offers. Movies can play with perspectives, conventions, narrative solutions. In other words: only the fictional Phil Connors gets to repeat the same day over and over again until he gets where he needs to be.
For example, the whole premise of the brilliant series Better Call Saul (aired since 2015) is that it’s the prequel to another series, namely Breaking Bad (2008–2013). It takes place before the events from Walter White’s life, and so we know how the story is going to end. We are well aware that the good-natured Jimmy McGill will eventually morph into the rotten Saul Goodman. That’s the genius of the series and the main character’s tragedy all at once: we don’t want Jimmy to turn into Saul, and while waiting for the inevitable to happen, we watch every episode with meticulous care. We focus on the tiniest details of Jimmy’s character, constantly analysing the cause-and-effect logic of each little pebble of human behaviour, waiting for them to become an avalanche. Just like in Shakespeare’s plays (according to Bloom), they are an exercise in humanity.
Friends in need are friends indeed
Even though Better Call Saul flirts with the genre while remaining extremely entertaining, it’s not exactly what we could call a light watch. But a light, upbeat vibe doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the show won’t encourage our bad habits. Let’s take Friends (1994–2004), another universal feel-good TV series that owes its unwavering popularity to – however obvious this may sound – its ‘friendly’ atmosphere. The sitcom convention is extremely purgatory-like, even by TV-show standards: the characters continue to exist stuck in one place for years on end, never really changing as people. It may seem contradictory, but that’s the charm of the premise. The opportunity for change won’t come until… the finale.
Let’s take a closer look at the seemingly cute and romantic conclusion of Friends, in which Ross Geller and Rachel Green become a couple once again after years of dramatic break-ups and reunions. The show presents it as a triumph, a classic ‘happily ever after’ moment. And yet the celebratory tone clashes with everything we know about the couple’s history and Ross’s possessive, toxic traits. It goes completely against the screenplay rule which states that what the characters – and even viewers – want is not always what they really need. In the Friends finale, the conflict is solved – as usually happens. But the real ‘conflict’ was the perspective of a real change, the chance for Rachel to go to Paris and escape the purgatory of her old life in New York. Instead, by returning to Ross, she reinstates the status quo.
Don’t get me wrong – I still consider Friends a great pick-me-up show. However, the problematic aspects of the show can no longer go unnoticed. Recently, it has been increasingly condemned for a number of reasons. We are going through an evolution of sensibilities; our ways of thinking about the stories we want to tell are changing, and so are the ways of telling them. There is a growing awareness of how fiction can shape and distort reality in terms of political, ideological, gender, racial and social issues. Those changes bring the need for a more prescriptivist cinema that focuses on positive values.
Side note: in the 1990s, a whole new TV genre was created in Japan, known as Iyashikei – light, peaceful entertainment, meant to have a soothing and even healing impact on the viewers. Here’s an example of mood-altering art: a camomile tea rather than an energy shot.
However, another problem remains: as Friends show us, the feel-good exterior can hide toxic intentions. Meanwhile, after watching something like Midsommar (2019), we can feel thoroughly purified in a cathartic ritual of horror. Those are the pros and cons of popcorn therapy. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that while some comedies can help solidify our toxic traits and certain horror films can make us feel better, they will always just be movies. Sure, cinema can make us feel better. But no cinema screen can replace the therapist’s office.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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