Would a movie help, pal?

According to a new book, 'Cinematherapy', it's only women who can learn valuable life lessons from watching films. Not so, says John Harris - men get just as emotional in front of the screen
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The Independent Culture

Pharmaceuticals, counselling or a regime of hearty exercise might have their merits - but according to the authors of the American self-help book Cinematherapy, repeated trips to Blockbuster can be an effective panacea for all manner of modern ills. The book's authors Beverly West and Nancy Peske claim that films can point the way out of life's ditches - relationship breakdown, professional stress, you name it - but there's only one snag. Their advice is solely aimed at women; men, in their estimation, are hopeless at "engaging" with what they watch.

Pharmaceuticals, counselling or a regime of hearty exercise might have their merits - but according to the authors of the American self-help book Cinematherapy, repeated trips to Blockbuster can be an effective panacea for all manner of modern ills. The book's authors Beverly West and Nancy Peske claim that films can point the way out of life's ditches - relationship breakdown, professional stress, you name it - but there's only one snag. Their advice is solely aimed at women; men, in their estimation, are hopeless at "engaging" with what they watch.

"Guys watch movies differently," claims West. "Women remember brilliant lines from movies, get ideas of how people deal with different situations and realise what's possible. Men have trouble unwinding." So, although a dose of Thelma And Louise or The Piano can work wonders for the female psyche, men are apparently stuffed.

On the face of it, you can see the book's point: the cinematic tastes of many blokes seem to go no deeper than a touch of childhood nostalgia ( Star Wars), a smidgen of violent grit ( Get Carter), and, if they're feeling ambitious, cross-textual, irony-laden cleverness ( Pulp Fiction). Movies that feed their inner selves remain decidedly off-limits.

That's what the archetypal film-based pub conversation would suggest, anyway. But the secret relationship of men and the movies lays waste to Cinematherapy's gender bias. In short, men do "engage" - and if I'm anything to go by, we do so with much the same emotion (or, to be churlish, sentimentality) as our female friends. Even the cheapest bit of cinematic manipulation never fails to hit home: when Bruce Willis committed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice in Armageddon, I blubbed; when the drab town in Plesantville suddenly went technicolour, I felt weepily euphoric.

And yes, men carry the thoughts that such movies inspire out of the cinema and into their everyday lives. It's just that, as with most emotional matters, we'd rather keep quiet about it. And besides, testosterone and peer-pressure endlessly divert us into the tedious and unnecessary world of recited Life Of Brian dialogue and Michael Caine impersonations.

Even the most brainless action movie has way more psychological significance than female cynics would suggest. Men, denied the chance to be true hunter-gatherers by being born a couple of millennia too late, project themselves on to Bruce Willis or Arnie, allow their adrenalin to run riot, and leave the cinema feeling inexplicably calmed. The reason is simple: our forefathers had torchlit duels with sabre-toothed tigers; we have wet Wednesday evenings watching Total Recall. The upshot, however, is much the same.

On a slightly more cerebral level, there are the films that allow men to feel that their archetypally male daydreams may one day bear fruit; that it's OK to attempt to assemble a space rocket in the garden shed. Such is the potency of Richard Dreyfuss's role in Close Encounters: he builds a huge clay volcano in the lounge, his wife leaves him, but he gets to go on holiday with the aliens and she doesn't. Ha!

Much the same scenario applies to Kevin Costner in Field Of Dreams. "They will come!" say the kind of voices that other people take medication to get rid of. Sure enough, whole squads of spectral baseball players appear from nowhere, and yet another crazy male scheme is validated. The lesson: ignore your wife/girlfriend and pursue that interest in micro-light aeronautics/table tennis/newts. It's OK. Really.

If you're experiencing post-relationship fall-out, though the male market is not nearly as well served as its female counterpart, all manner of movies can help you through. Swingers remains my favourite: here, in the part of Mike (played by Jon Favreau), is every post-split nightmare made flesh. He's unable to hold conversations with women about anything other than his ex, and the mere prospect of another relationship turns him into a jittering moron - but, despite the bad advice of his friends, he ends up pulling Heather Graham.

Later in life may come an outbreak of post-marital dead-endery - weight gain, a loss of self-esteem - in which case, though it might seem a crass choice, The Full Monty is ideal. Women may have formed the film's core audience, but Dave Althorpe - the rotund, angst-wracked security guard played by Mark Addy - is there to ensure maximum male empathy. He all but dissolves in self-loathing, wraps himself in clingfilm in an attempt to slim down, but ends the film on a truly epiphanal note. When he joins the "You Can Leave Your Hat On" strip routine, he's finally at ease with himself (and his gut).

Kevin Spacey, by contrast, spends the whole of American Beauty pursuing more radical solutions to his malaise. Forget the fact that fate leads him to be undeservedly murdered; the moral of his tale is that being true to oneself is life's most important duty. Combine that with working out, a daily joint, and quitting that soul-munching "career", and you may end up so "centred" that you realise that having sex with 17- year-olds is actually pretty grubby.

And so to family matters. The vexed area of sibling relationships, particularly between brothers, is a cinematic staple. For a truly heart-wrenching examination of all that, try Legends Of The Fall: Brad Pitt emerging from brotherly ructions - and World War One - with such a noble worldview that he rejects the woman he loves (ie his brother's wife). Or Raging Bull, which grapples with all manner of male themes: those self-same fraternal relations, the cruel onset of age, and even parenting. When Joe Pesci informs his son that if he doesn't eat with his knife and fork, he'll stab him, every father should acquire a new angle on tea-time discipline.

As for grown-up father-son relations, two iconic movies should easily do the trick. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade uses Sean Connery and Harrison Ford to show that your dad might be a crotchety old duffer, but with enough derring-do and rope-swinging you'll eventually earn his respect. And The Empire Strikes Back proves that however bad things may be between the generations, most men are at least blessed with fathers who don't chop off their hands and try and convert them to the "dark side". So what, really, are we moaning about?

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