A Story is a Promise

A Story 
is a Promise

A third edition of A Story is a Promise and Deep Characterization is now available. This new edition explores how some writers struggle because they make a main character an extension of the author to act out personal issues. A short video about the new work is available; a longer video is included with the book.

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Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Movies as Healing Journeys

Viewing Movies to Understand Life's Problems

by Bill Johnson

When I first heard the idea that movies could offer insight into life’s problems – into some of my problems – I found the idea far fetched. The idea behind this concept is that people can be so caught up wrestling with their issues -- dysfunctional relationships, bad choices in life, addictions, struggles to resolve childhood problems – that perspective is lost. It’s the old idea that we can spot solutions to others problems, while we aren’t able to clearly see or understand how to resolve our own.

Watching certain movies, we can see how others deal with difficult problems or issues.

Someone watching A Beautiful Mind can learn about the disease of schizophrenia and how it impacts individuals, families, co-workers, and friends.

Someone dealing with abandonment could watch This Boy’s Life, Kramer Vs. Kramer, or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Someone dealing with being with family over the holidays could watch Rocket Gibraltar and come to an understanding of why going home for the holidays as an adult can be so difficult. In this movie, adult children revert to childhood roles.

People struggling with the concept of denial could watch the Accidental Tourist or When a Man Loves a Woman.

I was introduced to this idea of Hollywood movies offering healing messages by a therapist, Dr. Gary Solomon, who wrote a book, The Motion Picture Prescription, followed by Reel Therapy. As a proofreader of the original manuscript for Motion Picture Prescription, and as someone who underwent therapy with Dr. Solomon, I have first hand experience in how this process work. In this article, I’ll be mentioning some of the issues that I confronted in therapy and how watching movies helped me to deal with them.

For myself, I found that the underlying dynamic of using movies to gain healing insights sprang from the fact that while I typically shield myself from the effect of painful or difficult problems, when I watch a movie, I relax and let in ideas and feelings, even ideas and feelings I would normally resist, reject or deny.

One of my major issues when I started therapy revolved around being a fixer. I couldn’t understand why someone I was helping in a relationship was angry. Dr. Solomon suggested I watch the movie When a Man Loves a Woman, with Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. In the story, Ryan is a lively personality who brings excitement to the life of quiet, thoughtful Garcia. When the drinking that fuels her fun personality becomes life-threatening, they have to deal with her alcoholism. She goes into treatment. When she returns, there’s a scene where Ryan’s children are squabbling. Ryan is dealing with the situation when Garcia shows up. He basically announces, ‘I’m the healthy person here; will the recovering alcoholic please step aside so I can fix this problem.’

I then saw why my girlfriend was angry. To satisfy my need to ‘fix’ her and feel good about myself, I needed her to not be able deal with her own problems. I wasn’t giving her the time to find – and be responsible for – her own solutions.

I could only ‘see’ this dynamic when I watched this movie. I simply could not understand this concept when it was explained to me. I had developed a powerful self-image that revolved around ‘fixing’ others. When I saw the truth of what I was doing – and why -- mirrored back to me in a movie, I didn’t block out the message, and I could begin to deal with the underlying issue of resolving my own problems instead of avoiding them by helping others.

Another issue I couldn’t understand about myself was how some people responded to my esoteric sense of humor. For many years, good friends had asked me to understand how people who didn’t know me interpreted my sense of humor. I shrugged their advice off. Then Gary had me watch a film called The Men’s Club, about a group of men who decide to imitate a women’s support group to see what happens. The idea of the club is sabotaged by a man who can’t deal with his feelings. He masks this by suggesting the men go to a bordello instead of talking about their feelings. The character I was asked to pay attention to was someone in the group who generally stayed in the background making esoteric, off-the-wall remarks. Remarks that often made no sense whatsoever.

The same kind of remarks I enjoyed making.

I could finally ‘see’ what I looked like, and I didn’t like it at all. This realization had a potent effect on me. Since that time, I try to introduce myself to people who don’t know me in a straightforward manner before indulging my sense of humor and making esoteric remarks that made no sense to others.

A third movie Dr. Solomon recommended I watch was Drop Dead Fred. This film took me into more painful territory I didn’t want to explore. In therapy, when Dr. Solomon would try and probe where I put my anger, I would not be able to hear him, even though I knew he was talking to me. Even when I re-listened to tapes of those sessions, I could not ‘hear’ those questions. I had some serious body/mind armor protecting me from dealing with anger.

So Dr. Solomon recommended I watch Drop Dead Fred. In the film, a young woman is abandoned by her husband. She returns home to live with her mother and reverts to a more childish, dependent personality. When she returns home, she also finds someone she left behind long ago, Drop Dead Fred, her imaginary playmate. Drop Dead Fred is more than an imaginary playmate, however. When she was a little girl, Fred acted out her anger toward her overbearing mother. While she silently stewed, Fred would smear animal excrement all over the mother’s beautiful white carpets, etc.

When the young woman again decides to be an adult and be responsible for her own decisions, Drop Dead Fred disappears. She has no place for him in her adult life.

I never had an imaginary playmate raining ruin on the people I was angry with, but the whole concept of displaced anger made me extremely uncomfortable. I came to realize that in my life I’d swallowed a significant chunk of my anger with large doses of sugar, salt and fatty foods. The movie helped me come to grips with what happens when I repress anger instead of processing my feelings.

This issue of imaginary friends became a topic of discussion between myself and Dr. Solomon when I was proof-reading Motion Picture Prescription. He insisted that in the movie Harvey, Harvey is an IMAGINARY rabbit. I insisted Harvey is an INVISIBLE rabbit. Dr. Solomon noted our disagreement in his book. I’m sure anyone who watches the movie will agree with me that Harvey is INVISIBLE, not IMAGINARY. I assume Dr. Solomon has some deep-rooted, unresolved issues around invisible rabbits.

Each of Dr. Solomon’s books, The Motion Picture Prescription and Reel Therapy, have indexes that cross reference movies by title and healing messages. While some films focus on one topic, alcoholism, for example, another movie might touch on several issues, being raised by an abusive parent, alcoholism, co-dependency. The basic topics covered in Motion Picture Prescription are: Abandonment, abuse, adoption, alcohol, cop-dependency, death/dying, denial, divorce, drugs, family, food, friends, gambling, mental illness, relationships, sex/sexuality.

I’m not suggesting this method is an easy cure all to life’s problems. I wrestle daily with many of the issues I took into therapy. I just recognize what I’m wrestling with now. That helps me make better choices; or, if I still make bad choices, at least I can recognize what I’m doing and change course.

I believe in this process not only because it helped me, but because so many people in the world will never be able to afford therapy. Most people, however, can afford to rent movies that, along with a guide like Dr. Solomon’s, will provide them some healing insight into their lives and struggles.

There’s also a very practical benefit to this concept. Screenwriters can use the understanding they gain from movies with therapeutic messages to build stronger, more believable characters and plots.

(This article appeared in ScreenTalk, The International Magazine of Screenwriting.)

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