Dec 22

“Love Actually” Is All Around: A Holiday Favorite

Love Actually is irresistible. You’d have to be Ebenezer Scrooge not to walk out smiling. Claudia Puig, IFC Center

And now, instead of walking out smiling, you can smile in your pj’s and never leave the couch.

Although I agree with the above review excerpt, when Love Actually was in theaters in 2003 it actually received a lot of negative reviews. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming an enduring favorite of many.

Perhaps you’ve seen the often parodied “cue card” scene. One of my favorites is from SNL following Hillary Clinton‘s presidential election loss to you know who. It’s called “Hillary Actually,” starring Kate McKinnon, and still today rings bitterly sweet, funny, and so relevant:

For Those Who Haven’t Seen Love Actually

Set mostly in London in the five weeks leading up to Christmas, Love Actually features a bunch of interconnected stories with a theme of—you guessed it—love, actually. And there’s an old song by The Troggs that figures prominently, “Love Is All Around,” that one main character, a recording artist, adapts for the holiday.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis, the film boasts lots of big names—Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, and Alan Rickman among them.

More from Claudia Puig:

Among the better scenarios are Grant as a bachelor prime minister who is too busy to look for a wife. He surprises himself (and everyone else) by being smitten with a down-to-earth staffer (Martine McCutcheon), a slightly more full-figured gal than average. There’s an unexpectedly bittersweet bond between the luminous Keira Knightley and her husband’s reserved best friend (Andrew Lincoln). And for tearjerking moments, no one can beat Thompson’s performance as the stalwart wife of the straying Rickman. A Christmas Eve scene showcases her talent for comedy, pathos and pluck, all the while breaking our hearts.

The sum of Love Actually is greater than its parts. The film is bookended by shots of ordinary people affectionately greeting and tearfully seeing each other off at an airport. The device is a bit forced, but ultimately touching. The same could be said for the movie as a whole, which winningly demonstrates that despite all odds, love is indeed all around us.

If you’re in the mood for Love, actually or otherwise, I believe this movie is worth it. I’ve seen it twice myself.

Roger EbertChicago Sun-Times: “The movie’s only flaw is also a virtue: It’s jammed with characters, stories, warmth and laughs, until at times Curtis seems to be working from a checklist of obligatory movie love situations and doesn’t want to leave anything out.”

Feb 01

“Groundhog Day” Revisited: Therapy and Self-Help

What would you do if there were truly no tomorrow, if you knew everything that was going to happen on a given day and nothing you did ever had even a hint of consequences? Kenneth Turan, on a key question posed by Groundhog Day (Los Angeles Times)

Groundhog Day (1993), starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a narcissistic TV weatherman who’s somehow been doomed to relive one February 2nd indefinitely, “has gradually achieved the status of beloved. The American Film Institute rates it No.34 on its list of all-time funniest movies…” (Michael Booth, Denver Post, 2007).

Watch the trailer below:

So, what does Phil actually do upon realizing his terrible plight? Janet Maslin, New York Times, lists some of his ensuing actions: “Phil eagerly explores every self-destructive possibility now open to him, from jumping off buildings to smoking cigarettes to overeating and refusing to floss; at one point he even casually robs an armored truck, just to see if he can. ‘Well, what if there is no tomorrow?’ he anxiously asks someone. ‘There wasn’t one today!'”

Phil also, though, consults a therapist—one who’s, of course, ill prepared to handle the unusual problem. In fact, much to Phil’s chagrin, at the end of the session the shrink can only offer words that are so not pretty: “I think we should meet tomorrow.”  (See a brief clip below.)

Phil does eventually get a better handle on the repetitive story of his life. But what’s the lesson of Groundhog Day?

A few years ago Ryan Gilbey (The Guardian) got the following quote from David O. Russell, director of Silver Linings Playbook (among other movies), who claims Groundhog Day as one of his all-time faves: “Very much like Silver Linings Playbook, it’s about someone fighting their demons using all that humble, difficult, baby-steps hard work that it takes, but doing it in such a hilarious way. It shows that until you wake up and get things right, you’re gonna live that stuff until you die: the same emotional prison every day. Phil has to go through every incarnation of what he thinks love is until he really gets it.”

Jennifer M. Wood, Mental Floss, goes beyond this, naming eight different “creative interpretations” of the film. The six I won’t be highlighting:

  • Bill Murray as Savior
  • Punxsutawney Phil as the resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • Punxsutawney as Purgatory
  • a metaphor for Judaism
  • a comparison for military boredom
  • economic theory

The two in which I have more interest: a metaphor for psychoanalysis (or therapy of any kind, I might add) and a means of self-help.

Many psychoanalysts apparently told the film’s director and co-writer, Harold Ramis (1944-2014), of their endorsement. Ramis: “Obviously the movie’s a metaphor for psychoanalysis, because we revisit the same stories and keep reliving these same patterns in our life. And the whole goal of psychoanalysis is to break those patterns of behavior.”

More from Wood on this topic:

In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis printed an essay entitled, ‘Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process,’ which explained that the film ‘shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.’

And motivational speaker Paul Hannam, who wrote The Magic of Groundhog Day (2008), uses the movie as a means of self-help. His book aims to teach readers to “learn how to unlock the magic of the movie to transform your life at home and at work” and to “break free from repetitive thoughts and behaviors that keep you stuck in a rut.”

Jan 09

“Promise Land”: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s View of Self-Help

 I think it really serves a purpose in the culture. That said, I don’t really think it works most of the time. You know, that’s kind of the fate of being an American is that you’re never satisfied. It becomes this never-ending pursuit of improvement. There never really seems to be a point where people [think], You know what, I’m done. I’m good. Author of Promise Land Laura Lamb-Shapiro, The Cut

The “it” in question? Self-help.

Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, by Laura Lamb-Shapirocame out this week. From the book description:

Raised by a child psychologist who is the author of numerous self-help books, Lamb-Shapiro found herself at once repelled and fascinated by the industry to which her father had contributed so much. Did all of these books, tapes, and weekend seminars really help anyone? Why do some people swear by the power of positive thinking while others dismiss it as hokum? In the name of research, she attempted to cure herself of phobias, followed ‘The Rules’ to meet and date men, walked on hot coals, and even attended a self-help seminar for writers of self-help books.

Laura MillerSalon, calls Promise Land “Lamb-Shapiro’s deadpan, eyebrow-arched effort to comprehend the glass-half-full point of view despite her own half-empty propensities.”

Included in the book are analyses of such self-help-culture traits as being taught to follow a one-size-all type formula, following “law of attraction” theories that don’t really reveal how they’re supposed to work, and the all-too-common usage of a lot of psychobabble and buzzwords.

Lamb-Shapiro writes in Chapter One about not knowing how her quest to study self-help would turn out. “I wasn’t sure how this antagonistic plot was going to end, though it seemed there were limited options: one of us (me or self-help) was going to be revealed as the asshole, and for the sake of a happy ending I was rooting for self-help.”

Ultimately she does actually discover some value in certain self-help teachings. As she relates to Alexandra Primiani, Publishers Weekly, “Self-help is a reflection of our aspirations, our fears, and our values…On an individual level, I think it can offer comfort in difficult times. The trick is to strike a balance between relying on yourself and relying on others, so that you don’t disappear into a solipsistic black hole.”

What books in the self-help genre does she actually like? It’s clear she’s into the classics, including Ben Franklin‘s autobiography and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.

The deeper Lamb-Shapiro went into her research, by the way, the more her own inner and unresolved stuff needed to be addressed, i.e., the loss of her mother very early in childhood. Readers discover later in the book that it was from suicide.

Selected Book Reviews

A.J. Jacobs, author: “Here are two important self-help rules. Buy this book. Read this book. You’ll feel better about yourself and the world. Promise Land is funny but not sneering. It’s poignant but not maudlin. It’s smart but not pretentious. This is gazpacho for the soul, which I much prefer to chicken soup.”

Publishers Weekly: “A sincere and hilarious picture of the personalities and ideas found in this field of self-promotion and discovery…Lamb-Shapiro’s journey through self-help culture fascinates and entertains, and as much as it also serves as a quasi-memoir, it excels.”

Daniel Smith, author: “Promise Land is not only a raucous, engaging account of all the hope, despair, faith, fear, falsity, and truth that comprises America’s centuries-old obsession with self-improvement. It is also a deeply felt personal story about family, secrecy, and grief. Read it and you might just find yourself improved.”

Feb 23

Bad Therapy Boundaries and Beyond On TV and Film

Looks as though How I Met Your Mother has finally found a way to get rid of Kevin, he of bad therapy boundaries, he who never should have been dating his former client Robin.

Let me make this brief: Before knowing that she can never have kids, Kevin proposes. Robin discloses. He again proposes. She accepts. She discloses she doesn’t want kids either. He’s unfazed. She insists he really thinks this through. He un-proposes. Done.

So, this has gone the way of all of those inappropriate shrink/client relationships we’ve seen on TV or in movies that eventually crumble because in the end the client realizes he or she’s been exploited or because of other negative effects on the client’s well-being or…

Whoa. Wait a minute. Wait a darn minute. That actually never happened on HIMYM, and…well, has it ever happened anywhere on TV? In the movies?

Back around 1993, a study regarding therapy boundaries in U.S. movies showed that there were 22 that featured female therapists having sexual relationships with male clients; eight had male therapists getting involved with female clients. (In real life, by the way, more male therapists take advantage of female clients than the other way around.)

The psychiatrist behind this film research, Glen O. Gabbard, states: “Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the movie The Silence of the Lambs was probably more ethical than most screen psychiatrists–he only ate his patients.” (For more info, see the second edition—1999— of Gabbard’s book Psychiatry and the Cinema, cowritten with his brother Krin, a literature professor.)

As stated by Dr. Ofer Zur, Ph.D., author of Boundaries in Psychotherapy: Ethical and Clinical Explorations (2007) on his website:

Sexual relationships between therapists and current or recently terminated clients are always unethical and often illegal.

Whereas in real life, most clients who’ve become lovers of their therapists are significantly harmed emotionally, most of the celluloid clients and shrinks seem to suffer no such thing. Many of these films, in fact, have even been billed as exciting “romances” by their producers. And, Zur adds:

What is interesting about some of these movies is that they depict the sexual relationships as effective in promoting health and healing.

Fortunately, more and more of the public is aware that it’s wrong for therapists to develop romantic or sexual relationships with clients and/or clients’ family members. One way that I see this every day, in fact, is in the disproportionately large number of hits to this blog by people searching for info about whether or not the therapist in the movie 50/50 and Kevin on HIMYM have been unethical. It’s as though these searchers already know the answer but need some validation.

I don’t remember if the following scene from The First Wives Club (1996) happens before or after Annie (Diane Keaton) finds out that her therapist (Marcia Gay Harden) has become involved with her husband—probably before—but, in either case, it may serve as some small comfort to those who’ve felt betrayed by their shrinks:

Jan 11

Sidney Freedman, “M*A*S*H” Psychiatrist

Ladies and Gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your pants, and slide on the ice. Psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman, M*A*S*H

President Obama announced last week that services for wounded warriors (including mental health programs) and military families are top priorities.

What about the availability of mental health services during the war? Have those serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan received adequate mental health services while there? Unfortunately, indications (both anecdotally and from various official reports I’ve found online) are that such services have been deficient.

Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) was the psychiatrist who paid regular visits to the Army hospital unit of M*A*S*H (1972-1983), the comedy/drama TV series that was set during the Korean War of the 1950’s.

His first visit to the setting, according to a fan page, was related to Klinger.

[Klinger] was aiming for a discharge (as always). After Freedman had finished the report, he quietly took Klinger in for an interview and told him that while he is obviously not mentally ill, Freedman was willing to declare him transvestite and a homosexual. This label would not leave him, as he put it: ‘From now on, you go through life on high heels.’ Klinger vociferously denied it: ‘I ain’t any of those things! I’m just crazy!’ Klinger’s discharge was uniformly dropped and Freedman left the camp.

Although I’m a fan of Freedman’s wry sense of humor, progressive politics, and ability not to be fazed by things others may consider bizarre, I do need to point out that a schizophrenia joke written for this character has probably helped perpetuate the myth that schizophrenia consists of having multiple personalities. From the scene:

Sidney Freedman: I’d like to go on talking to you, Flagg, but with your schizophrenia I’d have to charge you double time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve already kept Jesus waiting five minutes.

On the other hand, if the “Jesus” who’s waiting for Freedman is someone who actually believes he’s Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior, that someone is (probably) delusional and hence might actually have schizophrenia.