Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Beverly Hills psychoanalyst, writes about your favorite film, TV, and book characters
and their real human problems.

Many of us are talking about the timeliness of Selma in light of the tragic events in Ferguson, New York, and Ohio. The gripping message it has for all of us is to effectively garner our anger and fight injustice. Yet, director Ava DuVernay also has a passion for telling women’s stories. And, of course, at the heart of Selma is Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). Her story reverberates in a powerful subtext. What does it take to be a woman married to a powerful and charismatic man on a mission? Some feel Coretta Scott King’s strengths are not emphasized accurately...

The burning question in John Maloof's poignant and heartbreaking documentary, Finding Vivian Maier is this: did she want to be found? As a psychoanalyst with years of experience working with similarly troubled and traumatized patients, I’d have to say yes and no. There were two sides to Vivian Maier; some saw one, some saw another; some saw both. Vivian Maier was locked up inside herself as tightly as her padlocked room. John Maloof opened the door.  Many of us walked in. But, do we know her? Those that had contact told varying tales of love, mean-spiritedness, and even abuse to the children...

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper tells the story of parental directives that live on long past childhood just as much it tells the horrors of war and its psychological costs. Chris Kyle can’t be a sheep and he certainly can’t be a wolf preying on the innocent – his dad would kill him for that. But, “finishing” the boy who picked on his brother? That’s what his dad expects: “Good. Then you know your purpose.” His purpose: to be a sheepdog hunting down the enemy. Not a sheep. A sheep is weak. Weakness is not tolerated – not inside Chris Kyle....

  “I don’t want the Raisinettes, I just eat around them” … that’s what Andrew Neiman, Whiplash’s main character, does with the hurts in his life. That’s what he tries to do with jazz teacher Terrance Fletcher’s demeaning and crude sadism in this psychologically riveting film. Fletcher’s cruelty has its hook and he finds it in Andrew’s mother’s abandonment. But, in the end, the complexly selfish motives driving Fletcher’s cruelty do not win out. Or do they? That’s the question Whiplash leaves us with. Yet, there’s another even more important question: how is someone like Terrence Fletcher able to bait Andrew and get...

What do we talk about when we talk about someone losing his grip on reality? When it comes to that question, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s brilliant film, Birdman, is meaty stuff for a psychoanalyst like me. Riggan Thompson, former action hero, has-been, failed husband and father, is struggling to change his life - against a Voice in his head that swings back and forth between the old allure of grandiose self acclaim or ripping self criticism. That Voice – who at first is unidentifiable, turns out to be Birdman, his claim to stardom in the movie business. That Voice is the teetering...

Why does someone create an illusion of who they are? Wes Anderson, a master of psychological ironies, tells us quite a lot about that subject in The Grand Budapest Hotel. At the center of the film is M. Gustave trying to live as someone he is not. All around him are juxtapositions of barbarism with humanity, slapstick with straight-up serious considerations of loneliness, greed, and the sometimes-desperate need for love. Is M. Gustave immune to these feelings? Or is his carefully worn illusory identity an attempt to cover them up? We all have a story. Sometimes that story is deeply hidden...

Loneliness comes in many forms. James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything tells a few stories of loneliness – Stephen Hawkings’, Jane Hawkings’, and Jonathan Hellyer Jones’. Jonathan - choir director, family helper, and the man who became Jane’s second husband - captures vividly what can become loneliness’ black hole when he says: “I suffer from the tyranny of an empty room.” Tyranny is a good word for the emotional emptiness that grabs hold and won’t let go. The emptiness that comes from deep losses of various kinds, that settles into your bones and seems never to let up. Sometimes the tyranny of...

Peas versus carrots: thinking versus feeling. Which is the winner? Alan Turing’s mathematical thinking, as The Imitation Game shows, cracked Nazi Germany’s Enigma code during WWII and saved millions. Yet, the same man’s brilliant thinking couldn’t save him. Crippled by terrible psychological fears (far worsened by Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality), his crafty “imitation game” was meant to help him. But, did it? Or did it instead become the one code he couldn’t crack? I’m a psychoanalyst. Solving psychological enigmas is what I do. It’s not uncommon for people to hide feelings or parts of themselves they’re convinced will be rejected. The...

Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s beautiful new film, is so compellingly real it’s easy to forget we aren’t watching a 12-year documentary of an actual family. With deft cinematic strokes, Linklater melds one phase of this family’s life, and Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) journey through adolescence from ages 6 - 18, seamlessly into the next. Yet, Linklater’s interest in realities underscores the fact that life is anything but seamless - a pretty harsh and at times discouraging truth. But, the director also gives us a not-insignificant take-away gift voiced by Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), to his son: “What’s the point? Point is –...

LOVE IS STRANGE — Ben (John Lithgow) and George’s (Alfred Molina) relationship, in Ira Sach’s virtuoso film, Love Is Strange, celebrates the best of love. Love can bring many things – happiness, joy and companionship, yes. But, also, conflict, mismatch, disappointment, hurt, and loss.  The specialness of Love Is Strange is how this film gives us an open window into just what adult grown-up healthy love is all about. The central theme in Love Is Strange is, of course, love. The film is also about discrimination and the stresses and strains on a family when a family member is in crisis. At its heart, though, Love Is Strange is, purely...