Honey, I shrunk the shrinks

Why are movies about therapy so loaded with clichés?

Why are movies about therapy so loaded with clichés?

To coincide with the transmission of BeTipul, the original Israeli version of In Treatment, a discussion on Front Row last week raked over the role of psychoanalysis in movies, fiction and on television. A Dangerous Method recently provided a lightning tour of the early days of psychoanalysis, and one of Front Row's guests, Matthew Sweet, mentioned that Freud himself had once been approached by Hollywood to write a screenplay. Cinema has long been intrigued by what goes on in the therapist's office. Unfortunately, the results often have less to do with the psychiatric profession than with trying to cure a screenwriter's malaise.

Cliché number one is the use of the medical professional as detective, to uncover information crucial to the resolution of the plot. Examples include Color of Night (1994), starring Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist who takes over a murdered colleague's group therapy sessions, and Don't Say a Word (2002), with Michael Douglas forced to interrogate one of his own unstable patients in order to retrieve from her memory a sought-after code number. For all the points of overlap with the reality of psychiatry, Douglas and Willis may as well be playing the Hardy Boys.

Cliché number two -- see K-PAX (2002) or Good Will Hunting (1997) -- features the psychiatrist as a warm and fuzzy individualist whose humanity is brought into focus by an unorthodox individual. These pictures remind you just how radical the representation of psychiatry is in Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room (2002). Moretti plays a psychoanalyst who reassesses his life after a family tragedy. Regardless of the picture's other merits, it deserves brownie points for approaching its central character's vocation with sobriety. "We always see caricatures," complained Moretti, "both in comic films where psychoanalysts have more problems than their patients, and in serious films where they resemble some kind of oracle delivering bookish sentences." Not only does The Son's Room avoid those traps, it also features that genuine rarity in cinema, the shrink with more than one patient.

Good-natured curiosity marked the first appearance of a psychiatrist in a movie, when the kindly shrink in Dr Dippy's Sanitarium (1906) calmed his agitated charges with the offer of pies; an approach not much in evidence these days. In early cinema, the psychiatrist was largely consigned to the role of faceless authority figure. Occasionally he might be rescued from anonymity to receive the ire of a big-shot star who had no truck with airy-fairy mind games: Douglas Fairbanks harboured a well-known distrust of psychiatry, and hoped to stem its increasing popularity with his swashbuckler When the Clouds Roll By (1919), in which the villainous shrink is finally unmasked as an escaped inmate from the New York Insane Asylum.

This sneaking suspicion that the lunatics have not only taken over the asylum but are billing us handsomely into the bargain runs from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) through to Dressed to Kill (1980), where a psychiatrist is capable of not only messing up your mind, but carving up your body too, or The Couch Trip (1988) and Beyond Therapy (1987), both of which feature shrinks who are in a more advanced state of mental collapse than the poor saps they're trying to help. The Scarecrow, one of the villains in Batman Begins (2005), even counts psychiatry as his day job. (Is Hannibal Lecter his role model?)

Latter-day movies have begun to question whether psychiatrists are even up to the task of paying attention: the therapist in There's Something About Mary (1998) wants to tutor his client in the etiquette of gay cruising, while the one in Happiness (1999) is struggling just to stay awake. In Cruel Intentions (1999) and What About Bob? (1991), the client is presented with a book authored by his analyst, only for the cost of this supposed gift to be added to his bill. In those films, and in those details, you can feel petty scores being settled by screenwriters whose advances have been siphoned off by their shrinks.

Not that all films treat therapists as two-bit hucksters, from the same gene pool as lawyers and insurance salesmen. Distinctly more reverence is displayed in Blind Alley (1939), which stars Ralph Bellamy as a psychology professor who gradually dismantles and overpowers his tough-talking captor through psychoanalysis. It may belong to that group of films that turn the shrink into a proxy detective, but this transformation could not occur without real faith in the profession. While the picture provides a disquieting example of confessions being used against the confessor, it also places psychoanalysis firmly on the side of good.

The friendly neighbourhood psychiatrist was presented as everything you could want in a best friend in The Snake Pit (1948), a film that became "an important stimulus for public acceptance of the health movement", according to Leslie Rabkin, author of The Celluloid Couch. And therapy could also be synonymous with tenderness and sensitivity: long before Lena Olin swapped couch for bed with her not-bonkers-just-free-spirited client Richard Gere in Mr Jones (1994), Ingrid Bergman took the time to unpick Gregory Peck's mental knots in Spellbound (1945), leading the New York Times's Bosley Crowther to breathlessly conclude: "If all psychiatrists are as fruitful as [Bergman]... then psychiatry deserves such popularity as this picture most certainly will enjoy."

Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting is a modern version of the saintly head-doctor. Indeed, that movie embodies so many of the most abhorrent clichés in cinema's portrayal of psychoanalysis that it can only be viewed as a deliberate act of provocation against the mental-health profession. Take the field trips designed to suggest that Williams is eccentric but not threatening, and to give the audience something to look at other than bookshelves. Or the simple, one-step cure, which consists of Williams embracing Matt Damon and repeating the words "It's not your fault," after which the patient is sufficiently well-adjusted to hit the open road in search of happiness.

Such conceits perpetuate the misapprehension that psychiatry is an exact science, with rewards and benefits which can be readily quantified, whether it's a code number, the restoration of inner peace, or in the case of the virtuous Ordinary People (1980), the redemption of an emotionally paralysed family. One of the few films to aggressively deride this habit of using psychoanalysis as an all-purpose cure is Mel Brooks's Hitchcock parody High Anxiety (1977). Brooks is the psychiatrist taking up residence at the Institute For The Very, Very Nervous, and discovering in the film's climax that his vertigo can be traced back to infancy, when an argument between his mother and father sent him toppling from his high chair. "It's not heights I'm afraid of," he announces triumphantly at the news of this breakthrough. "It's parents!"

When High Anxiety was released, viewers were familiar enough with the babble and buzzwords of psychoanalysis to respond instinctively to the film's wittiest sequence, when Brooks's speech at a psychiatric conference has to be spontaneously modified so as not to impinge upon the innocence of two young children who have joined the audience. "Penis envy" becomes "pee-pee envy"; the womb is temporarily rechristened "the woo-woo."

Woody Allen had by then played his part in making therapy fashionable, most notably in Annie Hall (1977), and has been the industry's single biggest salesman in his movies ever since. But only on television has therapy really received the scrutiny that it deserves. Complex or enigmatic characterisation abounds: the unseen psychiatrist in the BBC's This Life, whose disembodied voice is every bit as sinisterly placatory as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the foolhardy Dr Bright, played by Steve Coogan, in Curb Your Enthusiasm; Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and her own psychiatrist (Peter Bogdanovich) in The Sopranos; Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) in Frasier, whose protective veneer of arrogance has over the course of many years been carefully exposed as all chinks and no armour.

Perhaps time is the key. Just as the convention of the "50-minute hour" seems designed to provoke frustration, so the brevity of films like Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and Analyze This (1999) will naturally put them at a disadvantage compared with the long, rigorous years that The Sopranos and In Treatment have had at their disposal. Those hours of television provide space for the riveting essence of psychoanalysis: the fumbling misunderstandings; the drawn-out silences; the sheer, staring-at-the-wall nothingness. What cinema's prevailing view of therapy cannot countenance is that mysteries aren't always wrapped up in time for the closing credits. They take a long time to crack, or they get taken to the grave.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
Show Hide image

Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist