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.”

Oct 29

“Olive Kitteridge”: Depression a Main Theme In HBO Movie

Many of us have read and loved Elizabeth Strout‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel. And now the mini-series is coming to HBO Sunday and Monday. Olive Kitteridge the film adaptation has so far garnered nothing but rave reviews, including for—and perhaps especially for—the lead performances.

HBO’s official description:

A look at a seemingly placid New England town that is actually wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, all told through the lens of Olive, whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center. The story spans 25 years and focuses on Olive’s relationships with her husband, Henry, the good-hearted and kindly town pharmacist; their son, Christopher, who resents his mother’s approach to parenting; and other members of their community.

Olive and her husband are played by Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins; son Christopher by John Gallagher, Jr.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “While not all the book’s 13 interconnected stories and throng of characters are covered, the tone is captured and the essential elements given ample breathing space in this emotionally satisfying, funny-sad four-part HBO miniseries. Produced by Tom Hanks’ Playtone banner, it’s directed with an impeccable balance of sensitivity and humor by Lisa Cholodenko and expertly adapted by Jane Anderson.”

According to Robbie Collin, Telegraph, Cholodenko has dubbed the material’s tone “traumady.”

DEPRESSION IN THE FAMILY of Olive Kitteridge

Peter Debruge, Variety:

Thematically speaking, shotguns and fathers’ suicides loom heavy over much of the miniseries, which tends to view its ‘Our Town’-like cross-section of Crosby residents in generational terms, where children are constantly dealing with their parents’ baggage, and where middle-school teachers [like Olive] appear to have relatively little impact on the lives of their students…Depression may or may not run in Olive’s family. She certainly seems to have passed it on to her son, Christopher…who grows up resenting his mom, and in the teleplay’s opening scene, we see Olive, widowed and unhappy at the end of her life, going for a picnic in the woods where, instead of bringing food, she unpacks a revolver.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Depression is a significant theme here. It drifts like gray clouds across the sleepy town and the gorgeous New England scenery, surfacing from one generation to the next in family histories. One of the most affecting threads concerns couch-bound Valium popper Rachel Coulson (Rosemarie DeWitt), and later, her grown son Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), back from doing psychiatry at Columbia and ready to give up on life until Olive interrupts his despair.”

OLIVE

Peter Debruge, Variety: “For much of the mini, Olive actually appears to be a secondary character in her own life, sort of the surly opposite of a busybody — a woman who’s always present, but seldom wants to engage with other people’s troubles.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “A blunt, abrasive woman with a cutting sense of humor, she has little time for words of comfort or flattery, and while she’s not without compassion, she shows it sparingly, on her own strictly unsentimental terms.”

OLIVE AND HENRY

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Their union is a classic mismatch, and one shudders often as Henry’s upbeat observations and affectionate gestures are struck down by Olive’s unvarnished worldview, distilled into a sardonic quip. In the first and arguably strongest episode, ‘Pharmacy,’ they both entertain the notion of more suited soul mates — Olive with her fellow teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), a complicated man with an affinity for the haunted poetry of John Berryman; Henry with the sweet-natured mouse Denise (Zoe Kazan), who works for him. Watching Jenkins’ face transform into giggling boyish delight around her is a heartbreaking joy.

CHRISTOPHER

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “As Chris goes through one unhappy marriage and a lot of therapy before finding a more workable though still imperfect domestic situation, his resentment bubbles up over the difficulties of growing up with a mother like Olive.”

TRAILER for Olive Kitteridge

One of the available previews has a great opener that addresses the depression within the family:

Jan 06

“What About Bob?”: The Need to Take Baby Steps

Rita Kempley, The Washington Post, once stated that the now-classic comedy What About Bob? (1991) “…addresses the way many a patient feels when his psychiatrist has the nerve to go away without giving a thought to his problems.”

What About Bob? also been called “…a revenge fantasy for anyone who’s ever resented hypocritical exploitative shrinks” (Jonathan RosenbaumChicago Reader)

The movie begins with another psychiatrist sending the challenging patient Bob (Bill Murray), a highly dependent man with lots of fears, to egotistical Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss). In the initial session, Dr. Marvin gives Bob a copy of his brand new book called Baby Steps (a book, incidentally, that many wish actually existed).

Marvin: It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself. One day at a time, one tiny step at a time—do-able, accomplishable goals.

Bob: Baby steps.

Marvin: When you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just deal with getting out of the room. When you reach the hall, just deal with the hall. And so forth. Baby steps.

In spite of its presence in what’s otherwise an unrealistic and zany dark comedy, this simple concept of “baby steps” has proven meaningful to many who see it. “Baby steps” cuts right to the heart of the process of achieving desired changes in one’s life.

Incidentally, one real-life well-reviewed book about taking baby steps is called One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way (2004), by Robert Maurer, who teaches a Japanese technique that involves working toward “continuous improvement.”

One baby step at a time.

Oct 21

Therapist Boundaries (Violence): “Good Will Hunting,” “What About Bob?”

Do a Google search about therapist boundaries, specifically therapists and violence, and you’ll find plenty about clients attending therapy for being violent. From Psychotherapynotes.com:

…Psychotherapists can and do intervene to prevent hundreds if not thousands of acts of violence every day. We talk clients down from fits of rage, we help suicidal clients to find hope (or at least to understand what hurting themselves would do to their loved ones), we coordinate care with physicians to make sure those who need to be on medication stay on it, and when we assess imminent danger, we hospitalize or coordinate with law enforcement. The violence we prevent doesn’t make the news, but it saves many, many lives.

But can you find any reliable info about therapists being violent? Against their clients? No? Do we have to (misguidedly) look to the movies for such things?

Will (Matt Damon) in the movie Good Will Hunting (1997) is one character who has to attend therapy after an episode of violence. Finding the right shrink for Will, who trusts no one who tries to help him, turns out to be no easy feat. Well, maybe the less traditional, more directive kind of therapist we eventually find in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) will fill the bill.

But before Will gets anywhere close to the meaningful catharsis the film wants him to have, he has to put Maguire through the usual hoops, in one instance meanly and provocatively maligning Maguire’s dead wife. What follows is this disturbing scene involving terrible therapist boundaries:

Lesson #1 (You Wouldn’t Pick Up From The Movies): It’s never okay to choke a client. (Or harm a client in any way.) (Unless, of course, in self-defense.) Even if the client then backs off and actually moves on to have one particular wowie-zowie life-changing therapy session.

Next up, there’s actually worse things a shrink can do. In the film What About Bob? (1991), the psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfuss goes nuts himself dealing with Bob (Bill Murray), his dependent client who follows him, uninvited of course, on vacation.

Lesson #2 (You Might Not Pick Up From the Movies): Even unsuccessful attempts at killing one’s (annoying) clients are not allowed.