ESFS Festivals

ESFS Festival #4 – “Tell Me About Your Mother: Psychotherapy On Film”

indexBy Mike Dub

Therapists have been featured in films ever since the profession began, which is to say, the majority of the time film has been around.  And why not?  A profession that is primarily based on observing behavior, understanding motivation, and investigating people’s minds and souls, psychology has always been fertile territory for filmmakers to present myriad explanations for the behavior of their characters and, by extension, humans in general.  As film is a medium dedicated to the explanation of human behavior, psychologists and psychiatrists are ideal vehicles to help an audience navigate the murky depths of the human soul.

Acceptance of psychology into pop culture has had immense, far-reaching effects on film, far too many to cover during this 3-film festival.  The concept of psychological motivation has been the dominating force behind film acting for the majority of its lifespan, just as the psychology of the viewer has been repeatedly studied and expounded upon, both directly by hundreds of film and psychology scholars, as well as explicitly in films from directors that range from Eisenstein to Hitchcock to Bergman to David Lynch.  There have been seemingly thousands of essays written about the psychology of reception, representation, narrative interpretation, structural presentation, and so on.

However, the aim of this festival is to take a look at the psychiatrist as a character in film.  Like police detectives, teachers, athletes, and even superheroes, psychiatrists provide a malleable slate on which to pin a filmmaker’s perspective, despite certain inherent expectations that the character may bring.  In the same way that we expect a crime to occur when we watch a film about a police detective, the sight of the psychiatrist carries with it the expectation of introspection, investigation, an explanation of our most common and uncommon behaviors.  However, the perspective of the filmmaker changes the function of the psychiatrist in a given film.

In Hitchcock’s Psycho, for instance, it is the psychiatrist in the final scenes that brings clarity, if not resolution, to an act of incomprehensible evil.  For Hitchcock, everyone is vulnerable to acts of violence, not only as victims, but as perpetrators as well.  The fragility of the human brain is universal, and as such implies that given similarly abhorrent circumstances, any one of us could be a killer.

Conversely, in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, it is Judd Hirsch’s psychiatrist that helps a distraught teenager find closure after the death of his brother.  Here, the psychiatrist engenders the resilience, the repair-ability of the human brain.  Contrary to Psycho, Ordinary People posits that by understanding our problems and confronting them – with the help of a professional – we can overcome the obstacles of life.

Of course, the trauma suffered by Norman Bates (violent sexual abuse as a young child) is vastly more extreme than that suffered by Timothy Hutton (the early death of a family member), and the role of the psychiatrist is vastly different in each film.  However, it is noteworthy that each director utilizes the psychiatrist in a way that reinforces their auteur-ist worldview.  Hitchcock frequently used characters whose minds were warped, sparking an eerie sadism that often included violence and murder.  Redford, who, despite a tendency toward literal, overtly political “message” movies, has also made several dramas that in one way or another feature the triumph of the human spirit (which is to say, the human mind) over seemingly insurmountable emotional adversity (The Legend of Bagger Vance, for example).


In addition to the pliability of the character to represent a director’s point of view, the psychiatrist in film has been well-codified throughout its history.  Though the character can be used at any filmmaker’s singular discretion, there are several subtypes of the psychologist that consistently appear, creating a kind of subset of genres.

The most common of these the psychiatrist as investigator.  In this capacity, the psychiatrist is similar to a police detective, presented with a mysterious problem of great importance.  Through clues discovered by interview and examination, the doctor must reach a conclusion as to the source of the aberrant behavior, and hopefully find a cure.  To complicate things, the subject of study is often hostile to the process, conscripted in some way to endure the examination.  Sometimes the psychiatrist serves as an administer of criminal justice, as when “getting into the mind” of a serial killer, but more often they are simply helpful aids that usher people from emotional illness to breakthrough.  Ordinary People is probably the standard bearer of this kind of character, at least since its Best Picture win in 1981, but you can name a million different films in various genres, including the blockbuster comedy Analyze This, the coming of age drama Good Will Hunting, and Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound, which was such an early entry into the genre that it required an enlightening written introduction to the field of psychiatry.


Another popular subgenre of the psychotherapy film is the Institution Film.  Somewhat parallel to a prison movie, these films follow the lives of patients in mental institutions, as they suffer the difficulties of confinement and the pressure to conform.  The institution itself often serves as a metaphor for society, usually a critique of society’s imposition of conforming behavior and punishment of individuality.  From films as far from each other in tone and era as Harvey (which features key scenes in a mental institution) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the mental institution is a battleground between the free individual and oppressive social norms.  Additionally, institution films may also act like tabloid exposes, featuring seemingly sane characters who, inside an institution of insanity, fall victim to madness.  Samuel Fuller’s wonderful Shock Corridor, for instance, dons the mask of a muckraking indictment of conditions in mental institutions, while in actuality presenting a baroque critique of the insanity of American society in the early 1960s.


In film, the institution is not the only place where we find the psychiatrist as an agency of villainy.  Another of the more popular character types of the psychiatrist is the sicko.  These are the mental health experts who are more twisted than their patients.  Conceited, manipulative, warped and often in a state of denial, the sicko doctor can appear in a variety of stylistic tones.  Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs has become one of the most iconic horror figures in film, voted by AFI as the #1 Movie Villain of all time.  Meanwhile, in the straightforward comedy What About Bob?, Frank Oz presents his psychotic psychiatrist as an egotistical buffoon who becomes unraveled by the incessant presence of an annoying patient, eventually attempting murder to solve the problem.  In David Mamet’s mystery House of Games, a female psychiatrist who, in a moment of doubt, admits that psychiatry is a “fraud” is drawn into a criminal underworld by con artists who know more about human behavior than she does.  She eventually succumbs to her own obsessive desires, taking part in several scams under the tutelage of a pro.


In our “Tell Me about Your Mother”: Psychotherapy on Film festival, we will watch three films from three different genres, three different styles of director, and from three different eras in film.  We will begin with The Three Faces of Eve, directed by studio man and non-auteur Nunally Johnson, and starring Joanne Woodward in her Oscar-winning performance.  The movie was released in 1957, at a time when psychiatry was becoming more popular and accepted in American society.  Second, we will watch Sidney Lumet’s Equus, an institution film released in 1977, a time when psychology was well accepted as a course of study and help.  Finally, we will watch auteur David Cronenberg’s 2011 “biopic” A Dangerous Method, an interpretation of the relationship of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

As we watch and compare these films, a few questions to keep in mind:

*How does the psychiatrist in each film fit into the character subgenres discussed above?

*How does the interpretation of the character change in the hands of three very different directors: a studio session man (Johnson); an inconsistent workhorse equally capable of great and terrible films (Lumet); and an art-house auteur (Cronenberg)?

*How does the psychiatrist character develop in the three different eras?

Join us Wednesday for a discussion of our first film, The Three Faces of Eve, available in its entirety on YouTube.

Festival Schedule:

*Film #1The Three Faces of Eve (1957; Dir.: Nunnally Johnson) [Mike Dub review on Wednesday, May 7]

*Film #2Equus (1977; Dir.: Sidney Lumet) [Daniel Barnes review on Monday, May 12]

*Film #3A Dangerous Method (2011; Dir.: David Cronenberg) [Mike Dub review on Monday, May 19]

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