The James Clayton Column: Medicinal movies for healing and hope

Feature James Clayton 14 Dec 2012 - 09:25

With Mary Elizabeth Winstead fighting alcoholism in Smashed, James looks at movies that take on issues of illness and addiction...

I truly believe in the healing power of movies. In times of trouble and unease, I optimistically hold on to the idea that motion pictures are more than just escapist entertainment and act as a problem-solving power for greater good.

I’m not going to talk here about how films as ideological texts challenge vast socio-cultural and socio-political issues like war and bigotry. (You know the score and have seen how Avatar brought peace to planet Pandora, and how Brokeback Mountain ended homophobia in the cowboy community.) What I want to discuss is the remedial strength of cinema on an individual level - the personal level where it operates most profoundly and effectively.

GPs, nurses, surgeons, therapists and so on may all be beneficial and, at times, necessary but in my experience all are inferior to Dr Film. Dr Film has always been available and able to meet my urgent needs whatever they may be. I’m not advising that you completely drop medical professionals and swap them for cinema as a sort of all-encompassing homeopathic pop cultural substitute. Nevertheless, I do recommend movies as a restorative tool for those sick in body, mind and/or spirit.

A film can’t fix a broken leg, physically perform a kidney transplant or burst embarrassing boils. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that screenings of 50/50 - the comedy where Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets chemotherapy - haven’t yet cured anyone’s cancer and watching Philadelphia won’t suddenly flip HIV positive status to HIV negative.

Still, even if they don’t dispense actual medicine or conduct crucial operations they do proactively aid the afflicted by therapeutically massaging the emotional and cognitive centres through sensory stimulation. When the reek of disease or even death is unbearable, movies can provide cheer and distract you from all-pervading despair.

Looked at from a different standpoint, films can also function as informational tools that provide healthcare advice and educate viewers about particular medical conditions. They do excellent destigmatisation work and challenge ignorance (good health’s biggest enemy). Through watching certain flicks you can come to understand illness better and empathetically get a sense of what it might be like to suffer with, say, cancer, a specific disability or a problem like substance addiction.

Addiction is a particularly interesting issue, and one that’s proved to be surprisingly cinematic. In my idealised fantasy school curriculum kids would be spared patronising anti-drug presentations delivered by fogey teachers and local police officers and would instead be forced to sit through Trainspotting and Requiem For A Dream three times a year until they graduate. No one would ever grow up to be a junkie if they were traumatised from a young age and conditioned to associate drug abuse with dead babies, grotty Edinburgh toilets, forced career moves into prostitution and terrifying monster fridge attacks.

Those appallingly brilliant films deal with addiction to illicit substances, but what about legal ones? Shame explored compulsive need for constant sexual stimulation, but I’m going to concentrate on another type of addiction more widely represented in the movies. Alcoholism has been served to cinemagoers in a vast array of films both as a subplot and as the prime concern, and Smashed is the latest to join the lush list.

Even as a teetotaller (no, I will not be your designated driver) I’m keen to see James Ponsoldt’s new film, partly because I’m hoping it’ll be to alcoholism what 50/50 is to cancer and what David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is to bipolar disorder - a serious film about a serious subject counterbalanced with humour and human warmth.

Tales of addiction don’t often tend to have much in the way of light-heartedness and thinking about alcohol dependency, I’m confronted with memories of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. A two-hour suicide sojourn for audiences eager for a depressive episode, the film follows deadbeat screenwriter Nicolas Cage on a trip to Sin City where he’ll drink himself to death in a hotel room.

The relationship between Cage and Elisabeth Shue’s abused hooker-with-a-heart gives the story a touch of sweet romance but otherwise Leaving Las Vegas is irredeemably bleak. It’s also a Nic Cage flick that you don’t remember for wild ‘Noveau Shamanistic’ freakout moments or quirky ‘Crazy Cage’ outbursts. All I recall is the draining sad demise of a hopeless man, his will to live sapped by substance abuse, ignominiously ebbing away into alcohol-hazed oblivion.

Cage claimed the Best Actor Oscar because the Academy appears to like alcoholics (see also Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart) and it is, indeed, worthy stuff that deserves acknowledgement. It may even be a good idea to show Leaving Las Vegas to school kids to highlight the dangers awaiting those who drink to excess or aspire to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Nevertheless, I think I need an alcoholic-pic that’s not so melancholic and this is where I’m hoping Smashed - about an alcoholic who doesn’t conform to the crotchety male boozehound stereotype - can provide a refresher.

I’ve no wish to watch Ramona Flowers plummet into drunken degeneracy and the prospect of seeing the ruin of the ultimate manic pixie dream girl makes me cry inside. Fortunately though, the synopsis and trailer swiftly disassociate Winstead from the iconic role of the Scott Pilgrim Vs The World film and places us in gritty realism.

Appealingly, it seems that this reality isn’t as grim and futile as that of Leaving Las Vegas and there’s the promise of some perky moments and hope alongside the pathos. I like this even-handedness and the way that films adopting such an approach allow audiences to share the highs, lows, heartbreak and heroism of a recovery journey taken by an empathetic character who wants to get better. Really, healthcare-based movies - at least the ones that cling to life and aren’t about surrender to death - are classic underdog narratives dressed up in medical trappings. I see parallels to boxing flicks like Rocky or The Fighter, except our adversity-challenging protagonists are punching up against virulent bacteria, failing immune systems and mental health demons instead of an undefeated heavyweight champion.

The underdog edge and positive attitude underscoring Silver Linings Playbook and 50/50, for instance, fuels my affection for them. When I was down in the dumps stuck in hospital, 50/50 cheered me up and gave an affirmative shot of optimism that illness can be overcome and that life can be good even if it’s severely compromised by bad health. It didn’t matter that my personal experience had nothing to do with cancer - the themes are universal and can be applied regardless of individual circumstance.

Cynics may say that Hollywood is simply sugar-coating sickness, pumping out unrealistic wish-fulfilment and offers false hope but I’d reject such harsh generalisations. Life’s a balance of good and bad, incorporating obstacles and hardship but also achievement and happiness. I feel that medically-themed films like 50/50 and Silver Linings Playbook nail that balance just as all the classic triumph-over-trouble flicks do.

Off-screen health problems or more generalised problems are beatable when your outlook has been inspired by an underdog movie, and I’d personally prescribe motion picture therapy more readily than Prozac or a course with a judgemental psychiatrist. Feeling sick and low? Reach for films and you’re more likely to find inspiration, resolve to recover and reach a happier, healthier state.

James Clayton is feeling much better after watching an underdog movie and will never take hard drugs because Requiem For A Dream traumatised him when he was a teenager. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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