The following blog entry is my rough draft-proposal for how to go about watching a movie in a therapeutically valuable and efficient manner.
Step one, sit down to watch the movie, duh.
Step two, as you watch the movie you need to simultaneously access three different mindsets: being mindful, being emotionally engaged, and being critical.
Being mindful: This mindset covers the fundamentals of ‘watching’ in a non-distracted manner. This mindset is about being in the present moment, watching with undivided attention, and non-judgmentally noticing the full range of content (both on-screen material and within-you material).
Example: Noticing when distracting thoughts come into your head while watching the movie, letting those thoughts pass through your mind while forgivingly returning your focus to the task, or in this case movie, at hand. This mindset would also include the process of noticing the emotions being felt by the characters, and then noticing the feelings your feeling in response to that stimuli.
Being emotionally engaged: This mindset helps to maximize the emotional process of ‘watching:’ Make sure you fully and securely ATTACH to the characters – in the same way you would healthfully attach to a parent, partner, friend, etc.
Example: You need to receive the protagonist with an intentionally curious, optimistic, and trusting stance. As you do this you’ll start to notice qualities within the character that are likable/unlikable, relatable/unrelatable, which will help you to become increasingly clear about the character’s motivations, and to emotional invest in the characters experience, all of which will allow you to tune into the character and fully experience empathic reactions. The more you actively tune in to the character, the more you’ll feel what he/she feels on-screen and, in turn, the more you’ll learn what the character learns. Since the dramatic tension of film is inherently growth-oriented, the promise of rich material is more than likely..
Being critical: This mindset helps to facilitate a learning process in which you are deriving lessons for healthy/unhealthy living from the narrative, and actively applying these lessons to your personal experience.
Example: You need to follow the internal or ‘psychological’ story of the film (i.e. the external story would be the character engaging in a dramatic car chase, but his feelings about being chased and how he chooses to handle it represent the internal story), which affords the opportunity to critically examine/question the messages of the film/characters by noticing the types of conflicts being confronted, categorizing the strengths/weaknesses being exhibited, and predicting the likely outcomes based on the strategies/responses being employed.
These three mindsets – mindfulness, emotional engagement and critical-thinking – increase the degree of awareness, motivation and skillfulness, respectively, that you bring to the pursuit of the primary objective: using the film experience to create a healthier/happier life (i.e. growth and positive change).
As you watch the film with these three mindsets and intentionally pursue the goal of healthier living, you need to look for opportunities to employ/sharpen two different skills or ways of approaching the film. The first approach, which occurs on a more concrete level of thought, is to examine how the movie functions as a coping tool. An example of an intervention to perform in this vein is ‘savoring the positive affect.’ I’ll provide an example of this in a moment.
The second approach, which occurs on a more abstract level, is to examine how the movie serves as a metaphor. An example of an intervention to perform in this vein is to ‘capture insight-oriented parallels.’ I’ll provide an example of this later as well.
Both skills/approaches map on to the same wide range of health outcomes (to different degrees) that can be ‘tapped’ by approaching film with these mindsets/goals/interventions. There are outcomes that fall into the emotional, social, cognitive and behavior categories (the broadest possible categories of health outcomes as far as I can tell). For instance, the mere act of movie-watching can improve mood (emotional), serve as a bonding experience with friends (social), engage memory and attention in a healthy workout (cognitive) and serve as good, clean source of fun on a Friday night (behavioral). Further, both the ‘movie as a coping tool’ and ‘movie as a metaphor’ hits each of these outcomes in different and rich ways. For instance:
Distract from sad mood with a comedy————–Receive guidance on relationship impasse
Engage attention, memory on fixed subject (the plot)————–Deduce motives of characters
Showing a friend your favorite movie——————–Learn interpersonally effective strategies
Healthy form of fun—————————-Understand consequences to maladaptive behavior
Let’s apply this model of mine to the recently-released, surprisingly profound film, “Mud.” The narrative is about an admirable fugitive named Mud (he’s on the run because he killed the man that viciously abused his ex-lover), who hides away on an island, forges a meaningful friendship with two unsuspecting but adventurous boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Yep, Neckbone), and eventually escapes to freedom (with the help of the boys, and only after ‘growing’ as a person).
With regards to using the movie as a coping tool, you could use the strategy of ‘savoring positive affect’ by mentally highlighting the scene in which Ellis gleefully and sheepishly receives his first kiss from a girl. You would not only enjoy watching Ellis’ reaction to the intimate moment and, in turn, become more engaged in his storyline, but you could also take some time to pleasantly reminisce about your own first-kiss experience in all its glory.
Perhaps you can see how the effects of the ‘movie as coping tool’ can induce immediate, often emotion-based effects. Your mood would improve immediately with the jolt of pleasant excitment, which could serve not only to more deeply connect you with the character (which gets you more involved in the film watching process) but could also more deeply connect you with the people you interact with later that night well after the movie has ended (feeling good can stay with you for a while and propel more effective relating with others).
With regards to using the movie as a metaphor, you could take note of different facets of the ‘psychological story’ of Mud’s character. For example, a parallel process that might provide insight into your own life and how to make it healthier could be the interpersonal challenge that Mud wrestles with at the end of the film. Mud had been waiting on the island (and waiting in his life, more generally) for his ex-lover to stop sending him ambivalent, unrequited love and start committing to him in a sustainable, meaningful way. Her name is Juniper, and for better or worse, she is clearly the object of his undying affection. In the end, when Ellis neutrally delivers news to Mud about her shaky loyalty to him (a pattern she often repeated, marked by a gesture of genuine love quickly followed by an impulsively promiscuous act, he reflects on the risks he’s taken for her, and the consequences of his commitment to her. Doing this helped him to ‘let go’ of her and moving forward with his life.
Let’s imagine in your own life you have important relationships within which you feel ‘stuck.’ Perhaps you have a romantic relationship that is as imbalanced as Mud’s but because of the emotional pain inherent in realizing and addressing the imbalance you’ve been defended from it or aware of it but unsure of how to resolve the problem. Watching Mud’s conflict, and his healthy resolution, could inspire an increase in awareness and skillfulness in approaching your own unhealthy interpersonal dynamic – perhaps you can see how this ‘movie as metaphor’ approach is more cognitively complex but capable of offering long-lasting effects.