Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Reel Life: 13 Conversations about One Thing. (Psychotherapy)

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Reel Life: 13 Conversations about One Thing. (Psychotherapy)

Article excerpt

The Sprecher sisters, who wrote and directed the recent film, "13 Conversations About One Thing," are a refreshing presence in the egomaniacal world of movie making. Jill Sprecher is a shy and self-effacing director, who hands out credit to everyone else. Now in her 40s, she continues to be animated by the philosophical questions about transience, contingency and the meaning of life that puzzled her in college. Karen Sprecher, who coauthored the screenplay with her older sister, trained as a psychiatric social worker and gives psychological depth to the film characters who ponder these existential questions.

"13 Conversations" is not linear in plot or time line. Its stories are linked by coincidence, and the 13 segments that make up the film circle like a Mobius strip. "Pulp Fiction" was put together in a similar way, as was the recent British film, "The Lawless Heart." In none of them does the postmodern structure suit the substance as well as in " 13 Conversations"' penetrating psychological reflection.

The film segments are introduced by fortune-cookie lines, which I will paraphrase: "Wisdom comes swiftly" "We understand life looking backwards but we have to live it going forward." The sisters use the aphoristic lines artfully and with their special style of irony, which does not distance them or us from the characters.

Success has not come easy to the Sprecher sisters: They worked as temps (the subject of "Clockwatchers," their first film), and maxed out their credit cards to finish "13 Conversations." But despite (or perhaps because of) their unassuming ways, they were able to enlist an extraordinary cast and a talented technical crew.

John Turturro plays a college physics professor whose rule-ridden rigidity keeps life at a distance. He seems to know this in the way a patient can correctly describe his problem to his psychoanalyst without ever really getting it. Every attempt to break out of his prison simply narrows the space between the bars.

When we first meet him, he is having dinner with his wife (Amy Irving). Although they are still going through the motions of marriage, neither has anything left for the other except veiled resentment. Only later do we understand that he is having an affair and that she, unbeknownst to him, has found out. He was recently mugged, and when his discarded wallet was returned, she found evidence of the affair. But instead of confronting him, she asks him why he is not angry about the mugging. He, with a physicist's objectivity, allows that the mugging shook him from his routine.

His wife despairingly asks, "What is it that you want?" and he answers, "What everyone wants: to experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy" No real person, not even a physicist, talks this way. But if the lines are not realistic in any sociocultural sense, they are certainly true to Turturro's narcissistic character and to the part of us that identifies with him. And the Sprechers are interested in that truth: Their film is an examination of how the self suffers and survives.

In several interviews, Jill Sprecher has told her own personal story of trauma and survival. While walking near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, she was dubbed over the head in a random attack. Following emergency brain surgery, it took months to recover. This counts as psychic trauma in anyone's book, but she was able to forgive her mentally ill attacker, and she got over it. However, a few weeks later someone close to her "did something really small that just cut me like a knife," and she has carried the scar of that painful moment for years.

Sprecher realizes that psychic trauma is not objectively quantifiable but can be understood only in terms of its subjective meaning as a personal crisis. You will not find this insight in modern textbooks of psychiatry. But surely Sprecher is right, and she has played out that idea in several of the characters in her film. …

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