Friday, May 08, 2009

Sort-Of Related: The Couch Trip

Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Doctor. I wanted to – there’s no couch? Only a chair?

No, it’s not a problem, I just expected a couch. Too many New Yorker cartoons, I suppose.

Anyway, Doctor, I’ve had psychiatry on my mind lately and I wanted to talk to someone about it.

How did it start? With High Wall, a film noir from 1947. Robert Taylor plays a veteran who suffers blackouts as a result of an injury sustained in the war. When he comes out of one of them his wife is dead, so he ends up in an institution under the care of Audrey Totter. Unsure if he killed his wife, afraid to find out the truth.

He didn’t do it. That’s one of things I like about the movie, the very elegant way you find out at the start that Herbert Marshall is the killer.

What else did I like? The hospital scenes are good. Honest without being overwrought, like in a lot of nuthouse – sorry, mental hospital films. And I appreciate the role that money plays in the plot, driving a wedge in Taylor’s marriage and indirectly setting up the murder. Very ... adult, I guess you’d say.

You know what’s funny? I saw this movie years ago and didn’t realize it until it was half-over. There’s a scene where Taylor recreates the crime, and as it comes back to him the rest of the movie came back to me. Part of the problem is Robert Taylor. He never leaves much of an impression. When I hear is name all I think of is Sarah Jessica Parker’s outsized enthusiasm for him in Ed Wood. But you’d think I’d remember Audrey Totter ...

No, I don’t care to explain that. Why would – what could I possibly be hiding?

All right. I am hiding something. I’d never seen Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound.

Of course I’m ashamed. I’ve seen all of Hitch’s other big films. And most of the lesser ones. I’ve even seen his two wartime shorts, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, on the big screen, so ...

I don’t understand. Overcompensating for what?

The point is, I finally saw Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman’s the psychiatrist. Gregory Peck is the new head of her institution, only maybe he’s not. And he’s got mental problems of his own.

Yes, I did like it. It was made during the Hollywood vogue for psychiatry, so it treats the practice a little too much like magic. It’s best known for the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Which is dated and somewhat silly, because it contains the solution to a murder in code. But Hitchcock really sells it. The movies he made with David O. Selznick have a swoony, gothic feel like no other. I would have liked more of Rhonda Fleming as a nymphomaniac.

There’s nothing to read into that sentiment, Doctor. I think it’s pretty obvious.

You’re right. There is something further back that triggered all of this.

No, not in my childhood. I meant last month, when I started watching the new season of In Treatment on HBO.

Gabriel Byrne’s the shrink – sorry – and we sit in on four of his appointments a week, then his own session with Dianne Wiest. It’s a brilliant structure. Byrne is the model of rectitude with his patients, but when it’s his turn on the couch – actually, he and Dianne don’t have them, either – he’s petty, judgmental. Human.

I don’t follow every patient. I usually pick one or two. This season it’s Oliver, an overweight boy whose parents are getting divorced. And at the opposite end of the spectrum Walter, a businessman suffering panic attacks. John Mahoney from Frasier plays him, and he’s doing some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on TV. The man breaks my heart every week. Walter’s convinced his problems stem from an ongoing corporate crisis, but over the course of his treatment it becomes apparent that pain he buried sixty years ago is still seeping into his life. Powerful stuff. I never took therapy seriously, but the show illustrates how it can be beneficial for people. Who knows? Maybe even I could get something out of it.

It costs how much per session?

I see our time is up.