Imagining Shrinks In Film – Getting Even by Jacqueline Palmer

What is it about psychiatrists and psychotherapists on celluloid and how we love to see them suffer. I think we like to get even and give these therapists a lot more trouble than their clients have to deal with, thus somehow redressing the perceived power imbalance of needing to ask for help. In the hit HBO series ‘In Treatment’, Paul Weston (played by Gabriel Byrne) is a shrink losing his marbles over a young beautiful client. She is repeating an early sexual experience with a father figure in falling for her therapist, and Paul falls hard. When he takes his guilt and desire to his supervisor Gina (played by Dianne Wiest), the female shrinks holds the boundaries, and reminds him of ethics, morality, integrity which would be transgressed in having sex with his client. Though Gina is his conscience, Paul is soon joining the seductive Laura on his couch, and fondling and cuddling his way through her session. Naturally when he succumbs to her seductive techniques she is confused and begins to miss therapy. But Paul is saved by a panic attack at the final test of his will. Thankfully there are two more series for him to make up for losing his head, heart and high ground.

In the hugely funny ‘Analyse This’, Billy Crystal plays the comic shrink Ben Sobell, who lives in the shadow of his father, a famous psychiatrist, too busy doing book signings to attend his son’s wedding. Ben gets a client from hell in the form of mob boss Paul Viti (played by Robert de Niro): “If I talk to you and you turn me into a fag I’ll kill you!” he threatens, as well as getting his lackeys to drag Ben out of bed and out of his own wedding ceremonies (plural) for a session. Not to mention a plot to ‘take him out’ for knowing too much. In Ben’s nightmares Vito calls him a loser who needs therapy! Needing therapy looks to be the raison d’etre of Ben’s awful punishments – did I mention getting thrown in a shark tank. In spite of the years of therapy required for all psychotherapists in training and the ongoing supervision, Hollywood gets even as Ben, under fire from the mob, pleads with Viti to shoot back when his panic attacks get the better of him and he hides trembling under a car. Indeed Viti gets the touchy feely therapy speak lines, while Ben is forced to play at being a mob boss at a big meet.

More mafia bosses get the shrink treatment in the ‘Sopranos,’ another hit HBO series, and this time Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) takes his dreams and panic attacks to Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Before long she is taking her erotic dreams about Tony to supervision, as he tries to win his shrink with threats, gifts, trips, letters and kisses. Again it’s the female shrink who has to hold the boundaries firm, while the men fall hard and often get their prize in the form of a willing beautiful female client. This time in “Shrink”, Dr Henry Carter (played by Kevin Spacey) has another famous psychiatrist father looming over him in a well documented Oedipal dynamic, as he struggles with the grief and turmoil of his wife’s suicide. Turning to booze and drugs, this shrink to the stars is soon getting client supervision from his drug dealer: “Do you ever feel you can’t do anything for them?” And in a spectacular melt down during a TV interview he tears up his bestseller “Happiness’, “It’s all bullshit and then you die!” But before long there is salvation in the form of a celebrity client he can simply stop seeing in order to ‘see’ more personally.

And in “Help” the British comedy series, Chris Langham’s laughable shrink Peter, does comic turns to Paul Whitehouse’s parade of clients. He gets the giggles with his clients, and falls for his secretary, “I’m not very ethical really”, and like all imagined shrinks on screen that ends rather badly too.

In Treatment gets our treatmentDecember 2nd, 2010 London Psychotherapy Network Blog

Evolving out of the award-winning Israeli TV series Be Tipul, In Treatment is an American HBO drama series produced by Rodrigo Garcia about a psychotherapist, Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) and his weekly sessions with clients. If you have not yet come across In Treatment prepare to be delighted, and for those of you who caught series 1, series 2, which unlike its predecessor benefits from psychiatric (US terminology) consultancy, promises to be even better.

Thanks to superb acting and high quality, well-informed scriptwriting, In Treatment succeeds in accomplishing the near-impossible feat of transferring the process of psychotherapy from consulting room to screen with admirable authenticity and in so doing is a worthy ambassador of our profession.

The DVD boxed-set of Series 1 of In Treatment can be bought from Amazon. Series 2 will be available in February 2011.

Jac Palmer adds:
After being addicted to series 1 I checked out series 2 on You Tube and was delighted to see that not only is there another series of Hollywood stars, but we now have (on You Tube) a wonderful commentary from the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group, as they deconstruct Paul’s interventions.
This time Paul Weston is back in therapy with his supervisor, the wonderful Dianne Wiest, after being sued for malpractice over the death of a client (the pilot Alex in series 1). He has moved to Brooklyn, got divorced, and has even had a legal session over the law suit with an old client of his, April, (Hope Davis) who is of course very interested in Paul, shades of Laura?
So, we get the CEO breaking down his wall of success in panic attacks, and other colourful characters, Bliss, Oliver, Luke, April, Walter, and the treat is we get to see snatches of episodes, frozen at dramatic moments, as clients collapse, break down, act out, with a voice-over explaining Paul’s apparent mistakes: “Paul doesn’t get any smarter in week 7, or “Paul had no business calling April’s mother”. As well as critiquing Paul’s interventions, the analyst voice-over explains in titles and bullet points concepts such as repression, persona, and pathogenic beliefs. What a great aid for psychotherapy trainings. We are also told that April should ‘walk, not run away’ calling Paul a ‘one trick pony’.
Other episodes from series 1, such as “Laura’s Cheap Chick Tricks”, and “Testing in Therapy”, get the same analysis – showing us what Paul missed, and check out the ‘Campaign of Seduction’ by Laura, as she smudges her mascara, creates ladders in her panty hose….and pretends to vomit with the toilet seat UP.
I’m thinking of running an In Treatment film group where therapists can add their voices to the San Fran Institute and declare judgement on Paul’s innocence, intelligence, good practice, malpractice and general good looks…..hell all you need to do is add some titles, upload a section and tell us what you think… I’m obviously already a fan.

Our On Screen Obsession With All Things Therapy: Paul Weston in ‘In Treatment’ Series 2 Jacqueline Palmer

In Treatment’s Season 2, continues to draw in huge audiences who are charmed and intrigued by Paul Weston, Gabrielle Byrne’s compelling psychotherapist. And again I find myself sucked into the lives of his clients; April, an architectural student facing cancer alone, Mia, an ex patient and lawyer in her forties wanting a partner and child, Oliver a twelve year old boy, troubled by the fallout of his parent’s divorce, and Walter, a powerful CEO whose panic attacks signal a life crisis and attempted suicide. And of course there is Paul’s supervision with Gina, (Dianne Wiest) which explores his weekly trials.

As Paul gains in screen popularity, he is a target for his client’s anger, their disappointments and projections. Mia tells him, “You owe me a child”, after an abortion in her twenties when she was last in therapy with Paul. With Mia’s firm handling a lawsuit against him by the father of a former client, she uses her power in tough sessions to test his boundaries. She brings them breakfast while recounting explicit tales of a weekend of casual sex, trying to seduce him with provocative fantasies involving Laura, Paul’s ex client and love interest, entreating him to “call it a day and go to a bar and act like we just met”.

While therapist’s private lives are rarely seen by clients, we are treated to a bird’s eye view of Paul’s troubles in his therapy sessions. Now divorced and living away from his children in Brooklyn, he continues to blame his father for his mother’s suicide when he was a teenager, conducts a half hearted affair with a married ex girlfriend, is rejected by his ex wife, and experiences a profound loneliness echoed by his clients, “I hate my life, it’s broken” he tells Gina. Indeed his work feels punishing, and cancelling sessions for his father’s funeral leaves Paul with angry clients who feel abandoned: April is furious he is “not there to take care of me”, Walter runs a background check on him and discovers his lawsuit. “I’m like a knife in your neck”, says Mia, “you feel relieved when it’s gone”. So it is no surprise Paul questions why he is doing this work. Yet in his self-doubt there’s a willingness to dig deep into his own process, “Would you use a plumber if you found out all the drains in his house were blocked?” He is all too aware he cannot give his clients what they need: a lover, child, a better parent, as Gina reminds him that’s not what therapy provides.

Paul’s clients want more from him, and he delivers for good or not: he takes April to her first chemotherapy session, and tells her mother she is ill, against her wishes. “Stop all the therapy and tell me what you really think!” Mia taunts. He allows her to comfort him after his father’s loss as he speaks from “personal experience”, imploring her to face her issues with her father, while he’s still alive. He warns her what might happen if she doesn’t face the truth in therapy, “You’re going to keep punishing the men in your life for not being what you need”.

In parallel process he is equally provocative, testing Gina’s boundaries, “Drop the fucking cat like smile, the bullshit Buddha pose of yours and for once tell me what you really think!” rattling her enough to yell back and get out of her chair. Indeed there is some fun to be had for an audience of clients fed up with ‘therapy-speak’, as he belittles Gina for mirroring his words.

We understand that Paul cares deeply for his clients, lovingly collecting fragments of April’s destroyed architectural model, and trying (unsuccessfully) to protect Oliver from his parent’s fighting. He helps Mia unpack her idealised image of her father, and encourages Walter to reconnect with “the little boy whose been sitting in the dark scared half to death”. He encourages clients to confront unhelpful patterns and fictions that foster a false sense of self. In a moving role-play he phones Oliver in their session, creatively imagining the challenges awaiting him in his move from the city, confirming he’ll be there for support. He acknowledges the hard road they travel through chemotherapy, loss, divorce and bullying and admires them for their courage. What we get is a lot more elegant and choreographed than ‘real therapy’, which often takes longer than this neat seven-session TV version.

The journey ends for some and continues for others. April ends therapy, Mia ‘ends’ with a last ditch seduction, “Why don’t we just go in the bedroom now and fuck instead of pretending this talking nonsense actually helps!” Yet this ‘talking nonsense’ is often pretty spot on, and reveals the deep-seated reasons which can govern our lives and keep us trapped. Mia uncovers her role as a powerful lawyer defending men, as she always defended her father, just as Walter recognises his life was built erroneously rescuing others since his brother’s death, and decides to continue the work of healing his lost inner child. Armed with insight into improving their relationships, we vicariously experience the sort of therapy In Treatment audiences might like a go at, while an audience of therapists love to compare their game with Paul’s scripted methods.

“I haven’t lived one moment of my life for myself”, Walter realises approaching seventy, and this resonates for Paul as the raison d’etre of his work, “I want to be there”, he tells Walter, “when you go back and rescue yourself”. Beautifully put, this feels a pretty worthwhile project. And for those who dislike Paul’s brand of therapy, there are plenty of episodes on YouTube complete with commentary by Control Mastery, rubbishing the script and his style of working, his poor boundaries and more. For aficianados, the good news is that Paul has not thrown in the towel, and series 3 is done and dusted. Also look out for Necessary Roughness, a spin off therapy series you can download, if missing Paul’s weekly sessions and private demons leave you in withdrawal. And of course there are a variety of therapy approaches demystified on the London Psychotherapy Network website for those of you searching for your own Paul Weston, warts’n all…

“In Real Life”, A Loss of Innocence as Beeban Kidron Interrogates the Internet by Jacqueline Palmer

Yesterday Beeban Kidron’s fascinating documentary exploring the impact of the internet, was followed by a satellite discussion chaired by Channel 4’s Jon Snow, and spawned a lively online TV and radio debate, far outreaching the teenagers on whom she focuses. Demystifying what it means to live and communicate now with this technology, Beeban interviews teenagers addicted to their phones, to Facebook and social networking sites, to video games, YouTube videos, online pornography and gaming, as she weaves their interviews alongside academics, technology writers and thinkers, psychoanalysts, software designers, whistle-blowers and YouTube bloggers.

We see the impact of cyber bullying, the monetization of our data, scary statistics on usage, and powerful imagery of what the icloud really consists of; gigantic banks of machinery and fiber optic cables connecting multi million dollar buildings scattered all over the globe, storing our photographs, our videos, our modern day letters and text messages that make up our online experience. And where is our offline experience?

In the real world Beeban interviews Paige, a teenager of 14 who is so addicted to her phone she lets a group of boys abuse her in order to keep it safe, and falls into depression when separated from it. We meet fifteenyear old Ryan, whose porn addiction leaves him denuded of love in real life, as he and his friends increase their online demands for girls to get naked and more in an effort to out thrill the porn at their fingertips. Real bodies and real experience can never match his online high and fixed fantasy. Similarly a gaming addict flunked from Oxford University denies the impact of his Xbox addiction, as we watch his winning high while losing in life.

We follow Tom, a fifteen year old who comes out online and finally dares to meet his online soul mate. In a moving scene he and his finally real life boyfriend cuddle and rub their phones together to share information, in a strange act of intimacy. In a world where google “knows you better than your own mother”, the parents of a boy tragically bullied online are the last to know the truth. The power of the new brand of pop star YouTubers and bloggers on meet-ups in Hyde park is also fascinating, just as the questions the documentary raises on anonymity, and on the internet’s political, economic, psychological and philosophical implications in a culture where “Facebook conditions you to undervalue your own privacy”. Indeed the openness of the participants is itself part of the debate, with the new trend of employers using Facebook and social networking sites to eliminate candidates.

As kids grow up feeling more intimate with their phones, this conversation feels crucial. As I prepare for a workshop exploring blocks to intimacy. I watch the documentary with my teenager and experience the film and satellite Q & A as a powerful and real experience as we emerge into daylight to check our phones via a technology bearing little resemblance to the use of those who invented it.

Compliance: Powerless to Leave the Cinema Jacqueline Palmer

It’s hard to describe a more uncomfortable viewing in cinemas than this ‘truer than life’ captioned film by Craig Zobel. I witnessed people watching through their hands, I heard tight voices between arguing couples, and shrieks of nervous laughter leaking to dispel the tension. I even saw one person after another leave the Everyman Cinema. The question is, how far are we willing to go with employees and colleagues, when a phone call from a ‘police officer’ instructs us to hold said employee for theft and to strip search them at the office.

Powerful responses to the film can only trigger the victims and bullies in us, after all, our inner child has most likely suffered at the hands of a bully, a parent, a figure in authority, and that’s the part that will obey ‘police’ orders. The film cites the 1961 Milgram psychology experiment at Yale University, which explored whether Holocaust accomplices were simply following orders. In the experiment the participants were given the role of teacher and asked to administer electric shocks on their ‘learner’. Milgram’s conclusions showed how ordinary people were likely to follow orders by an authority, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Indeed there were 70 such incidents in the US of prankster calls involving abuse and rape that Compliance explores.

Sandra, the fast food restaurant manager (AnnDowd) plays it excellently, capturing the discomfort of her role, but eagerly winning brownie points when her perfect child tries to please and follow orders. Appointed to hold and search Becky (Dreama Walker) during a long and busy shift, she also hands her job to employees as she continues serving customers. “I did what I was told” she seems to brag when all is discovered. It is hard not to cry out in disbelief as we see them all following orders without twigging to a sexual pervert getting off on the line. We see how Sandra confirms Becky’s guilt with no shred of evidence, and does not call to check the officer’s id. Indeed she happily appoints her boyfriend Van to take charge, even though he is drunk and alone with the young naked Becky. All it takes is the odd familiar line of police jargon to confuse the prank caller’s perversity, as he asks Van to comment on her breasts, and spank her, so it really beggars belief. When the officer finally shows up and asks Becky why she didn’t refuse, “I just knew it was going to happen”. This sums up the experience of the viewer, as we witness the ‘true story’ impossibly unfold.

And which of us couldn’t admit to moments of submission, of being bullied, if not having experienced various forms of abuse. Harder still to imagine the manager or the prankster in us, who greets his little daughter after the call. It is with considerable relief when an employee gets the picture, and is able to stand up and refuse.

The cinema staff don’t often wait in the lobby to chat to movie goers, but after the film there was lively conversation, and when I squirmed noisily in my seat, for once there was not a single person who told me to be quiet. But this time the victim in me was rebelling, and would never have complied.

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