film dreams

still from People Will Talk

Still from the motion picture People Will Talk, 1951

After watching a film that you’ve really enjoyed, do you ever imagine yourself in the midst of the plot, interacting with the characters? Sometimes after watching a movie I imagine whole new scenes, or sequels, or flashbacks from the characters’ pasts. And I always imagine myself in the middle of everything – as one of the characters, or as myself. I think it’s true that films act a lot like our cultural dreams – after all, they are literal projections of our hopes and desires, the best wishes we have for ourselves, and our worst nightmares.

On Sunday night I watched an old Cary Grant movie on Netflix called People Will Talk. I didn’t have high hopes for it; I was just bored and looking for a diversion before I went to bed. But I was pleasantly surprised by this Joseph Mankiewicz vehicle, and the more I reflect on its narrative and story structure, the more layers and shades of meaning that I find – and the more insight into my own psyche.

On the surface, the story is the stuff of soap opera: A highly regarded doctor falls in love with a young woman who has become pregnant out of wedlock by her last boyfriend. When she finds out that she’s going to have a baby, she tries to kill herself. The doctor, afraid she will attempt suicide again, convinces her that the test results were wrong, and, ashamed of having her sexual life revealed, she runs off in the middle of the night from his clinic. The doctor finally tracks her down and pays a visit to her home, intending to tell her father about her plight. She’s indicated that the news would kill him, though – she swears she could never tell him – and the doctor is hoping that he will be able to find a way to break the news gently and carefully, so that the woman will not be cast out by her family.

The doctor discovers that the woman has been correct in her assessment of her father, however; while kind and good-hearted, he is a broken man who has been thoroughly unsuccessful at supporting his daughter (they live with the father’s brother, a hard-hearted, business-minded farmer), and it’s obvious that the news would devastate him. So the doctor proposes that he and the woman elope, which they do immediately.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the film, but there’s a dark spectre from the doctor’s past that needs to be resolved before everyone can live happily ever after. What haunts me most about the movie, however, is the characterization of the doctor. He’s a kind of Patch Adams figure – a true healer who treats the whole patient, and infuses all his interactions – with patients, students, or his new family – with humour, heart, and soul. In the medical school lecture very early in the film, he cautions his students not to believe that they know anything about human beings just from dissecting a cadaver. Physical dissection will not reveal the love, the hate, the desires, despair, or memories that made up a person’s life.

Throughout the course of the movie I fell in love with Dr. Noah Praetorius just as thoroughly as the pregnant woman did. And because I believe that infatuation is a projection of the best parts of our unconscious selves onto another, I’ve been dissecting what it is I love so much about this character, so that I can better know myself. He’s a physically gorgeous man – tall, lean, athletic, smiling. He’s playful and caring. He’s thoughtful and highly intuitive. He’s strong, honorable, and champions the underdog. He truly heals everyone he comes into contact with – body and spirit.

I can appreciate how I need to develop a part of myself that is like that – strong yet flexible, principled yet irreverent, wise and joyous. The feminine part of me wants to feel as protected, and cherished, and truly seen, as the pregnant woman was in the film.

And I can also appreciate that a part of me must already be like this miraculous doctor, or else I wouldn’t have reacted so strongly to him…

What do your favorite films tell you about your own qualities and attributes?