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Shrink at the Movies: “The Artist” (2011)

“The Artist”


Seeing “The Artist” this past weekend was a delight.  I primarily identify as a psychotherapist, which is how I make my living in a full-time private practice in West Hollywood (part of Los Angeles County and home to many in the entertainment business), but my avocational identity as a film/TV history buff is right up there with it.  So a film, in part, about film history is very exciting – a silent film, no less, from 2011.  The French film, a hit at Cannes last May, was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius and stars the unbelievably charming Jean Dujardin and the sparkling Berenice Bejo.

Plenty of film critics have given this movie its due, but the point of Shrink at the Movies (or, as I like to call it, “S/M”) is to give interpretations from a therapist’s point of view, of some of the lessons we can take from this inspiring film.

What are some of those lessons?  I think they are thus:

Know Your History – The film takes place between 1927 and 1932, right at the time that “talkies” were starting to dramatically overtake silents as the preferred format for films.  Knowing your history – in this case, film history – can help “ground” you and give you a sense of identity in the context of time and place.  We currently cope with a certain amount of overwhelm from new technologies, and many of us have mastered DVR’s, smart phones, texting, MP3’s, and entertainment streaming, all in the past few years alone.  Imagine, then, the sense of overwhelm that actors and others might have faced back then, seeing the tsunami wave of talkies taking over an industry that used to have a solid status quo in silents.  As the main character, actor George Valentin, Dujardin plays the embodiment of this overwhelm.  His world has been upset by the advent of talkies, and it is implied that it isn’t desirable for him to speak dialogue in talkies because he is apparently a French actor with a strong accent working in American movies (many silent film actors were “undesirable” for talkies in America because of strong foreign accents).  So if you have the feeling that Time moves very fast and it’s hard to keep up in one lifetime, take heart: many generations before you have had to make the same adjustment in their own periods.

Make Your Mark – Early in the film, actor George Valentin helps out female protagonist Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) by saying that a successful actress needs “a little something extra,” so he spontaneously takes an eyebrow pencil and draws in a tiny beauty mark above her lip, which we see come and go for the rest of the picture, depending on whether we see Peppy with, or without makeup.  Don’t we ALL have a “beauty mark” of some sort?  Maybe it’s a skill, a talent, a little “extra something” we were born with, or maybe it’s something that we develop through upbringing, family, education, peers, or culture.  The point is to identify, utilize, and enjoy the part of ourselves that makes us unique.  In psychology, this supports our self-esteem and strong sense of Self, which builds resilience for bad times and makes good times even better.  What is your “beauty mark”?

Live Your Love Story – In addition to the almost educational quality of film history “The Artist” has, it is, essentially, a love story.  Peppy’s consistent, if sometimes ineffective, love for George shines through – even when she makes a mistake by dissing silent actors to a radio host as George overhears (filmed at the lovely Cicada restaurant in downtown Los Angeles).  Peppy’s attempts later to “control” George and get him work out of a sense of pity backfire, as most attempts to control others in relationships do.  In my work as a therapist with couples, very often we have to adjust power and control dynamics in order for the relationship to improve (those of you who are fans of TV’s “Desperate Housewives” and follow the Lynette/Tom story line know all too well the dangers of one partner overwhelming the other with “good-intentioned” acts that subvert their partner’s independence and even dignity).  However, while Peppy’s “help” might make George feel emasculated (which is kind of 1930s sexist of him), George is also guilty of excessive “pride” in accepting reasonable help, as his long-time valet, Clifton (James Cromwell, an excellent actor and dedicated animal rights activist) points out.  Together, George and Peppy work it out – they find a way, through creative problem-solving, to work together in a way that benefits them both, by making a movie musical dancing together.  I’ve found that this very often the case with couples: when you put your minds together and come up with creative solutions to problems that you can both commit to, then you have a better time of it.  When working with couples, I always encourage the “Three C’s: Commitment, Communication, and Compromise”.  Part of the Compromise part is to creatively brainstorm potential solutions to problems that you can both live with.  Peppy’s line, “I have an idea!” is just this sort of turning point, for the better, in their love story.

Love Your Work – In addition to the primary love story between George and Peppy, there are a number of parallel and concurrent love stories. There is the charming love affair between George and “Jack”, his dog (played by Uggie).  There is a sort of love story between George and Clifton, his supremely devoted valet (who stands vigil outside of George’s apartment during George’s meltdown).  There is the bittersweet love story between George and his wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), which is never really quite explained why those two are so estranged.  In several scenes, George is seen giving more attention and devotion to Jack the Dog than to Doris, and we never really know why (perhaps the film’s greatest flaw).  Then there is the love story that both George and Peppy have with the movies, along with Al Zimmer (John Goodman), the studio executive for Kinograph Studios.  George’s meltdown where he tries to burn his films is like a lover who is getting revenge for being scorned by the industry he loves (few might know that film stock back then was Nitrate, which is both flammable and degradable, which is an important aspect of film preservation such as that done by the UCLA Film & Television Archive).  The tireless devotion that various characters have, on-screen and off, show the importance of bringing love to your work to make it thrive.  If you don’t love your work, try to find something to love about it, or find new work that you can give your heart to.

Cope with Change – One of the last words my wise and funny grandfather said to me, during my last family visit before he passed away in 1993 at the age of 91, was simply, “Roll with the punches.”  At the time, I only partially knew what he was saying.  With time, and life’s challenges since then, I have come to a deeper understanding of this phrase.  Just like Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) before, George Valentin fails to cope as an actor with the transition from silent to talkies.  This precipitates a professional and personal melt-down (Gloria Swanson has said the biggest difference between her and Norma Desmond was that her life after silents was productive and robust, whereas Norma’s fell apart).  We sympathize with George, and practically want to break the silence in the theater (save for Ludovic Bource’s wonderful score, despite criticisms from Kim Novak that it borrowed too much from the “Vertigo” score) by yelling at the screen for him to get himself together.  We know that there is life after the Great Depression and the advent of talkies, but he doesn’t.  But George’s folly is our gain; its lesson is that we must be resilient and cope with changes in our lives and in our world as they come; there is no such thing as being successfully stagnant.  A good adage for good psychological adaptive coping is asking ourselves, “What are the changes that I see around me?  Now, how can I thrive in the midst of these changes?”

Beware the Demon in the Bottle – Like so many movies before it, “The Artist” is also a cautionary tale to beware of alcohol.  George’s meltdown is not just changes in technology, which would have been challenging for anyone in his position.  It is made worse by the behavioral, maladaptive coping responses he makes by basically drinking his troubles away.  The problem with that, though, is that the problems don’t really go away; it’s more like he drinks the troubles from molehills to mountains.  His own despair and the alcohol push him down; the love of Peppy, Clifton, and even Jack (in perhaps the most delightful moments of the film) bring him back up.  Jack Canfield, the inspirational author/editor of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series and his own self-help masterpiece, “The Success Principles”, says that in this life, Event + Response = Outcome.  Events, such as hardships and mishaps, might happen to us, but it’s all in how we RESPOND to these that ultimately affects the outcome.  In my private practice, I often help clients from all walks of life who have become addicted to substances (such as alcohol, cocaine, or meth) or behavioral processes (shopping, gambling, sex).   I’m no prude, but for a robust mental health, we must occasionally assess what our relationship to substances and other vices is.  We don’t know, by the end of “The Artist”, what lay in store for George’s relationship to alcohol.  We do know that Alcoholics Anonymous was formed by the mid 1930’s, so perhaps George found not only new success in early musicals but also with early recovery.

I think the take-home messages in “The Artist” are plenty.  For a generation who might never have seen a movie from the silent era (those poor, impoverished souls!), it’s an opportunity to see how a wonderful picture can be made without direct dialogue.  From a historical perspective, we are taught, once again, that life goes on after changes in our respective professions and in our world.  We learn that the love of two people in a romance, the love between a person and his/her pet, and the camaraderie of the people we work with, are all treasures in our lives that you can’t put a price on.

Inspiring stories and pieces of entertainment can be a mood buoyant.  They can help us learn lessons and build resilience through lessons we can apply to our own lives.  For supporting your mental health – and even for just a delightful evening out – it’s hard to beat “The Artist”.

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