Cinema Therapé: A Tribute to Robin Williams and the film, 'What Dreams May Come'

Cinema Therapé (as defined by Jen): A type of cathartic cinema that provides an emotionally resonant and/or healing experience to the audience via the narrative storyline, influential characters and/or particularly moving mis en scene. 

There are certain movies that stand out in a different way because of their emotional impact and metaphoric staying power. One such film is What Dreams May Come, a dramatic, gut wrenching, fantasy love story that spans life & death and stars recently departed cinema-sage; the beloved Robin Williams.

In the film, which is set in San Francisco and eerily mirrors themes that one can speculate Williams wrestled with before taking his own life, his character, Chris, is a devoted husband and father who dies in a car crash and ends up traversing different realms of the afterlife in search of his long lost wife, Annie. 

Unlike his other deceased friends and family, Annie is missing from heaven, (a place where you can instantaneously create the reality of your imagination by focusing your thoughts), because she committed suicide. Brilliantly played by the Annabella Sciora, Annie took her own life when she couldn’t escape the illness of her severe depression, first brought on by the death of their two children killed in a freak car accident, then again by the death of Chris, who also passed away from a car accident.

The consequence for Annie’s suicide is Hell, and her version of it looks and feels exactly like their old home. Having completely lost her mind, Annie is now a shell of a former wife and mother who became so consumed by grief that she can no longer even remember who she is.

Although warned by his other deceased friends and family that the realm where his wife now exists can not be penetrated, Chris ignores their pleas to let her go and sets out on a dangerous mission to rescue Annie from the hell of her imagination. 

Against all odds, Chris actually makes it to Annie, but sadly, his dearly departed wife no longer remembers him, stuck in a dimensia-like state of loss and pain. As the world around them literally tumbles to the ground, Chris desperately pleas with his amnesiac soulmate to recall their love and leave the plane of her misery before their souls are lost forever.  Yet it is only after Annie refuses to leave and Chris agrees to stay and keep her company (even facing certain death), that Annie awakens to remember him. Then together, the two escape her soul's emotional prison just in time before the realm of Annie’s Hell collapses forever.

By allowing her to be where she was without needing Annie to change, Chris demonstrated a transformative act of love. He accepted his diseased wife in her amnesia. He accepted her pain. He accepted her in a way that he could not when they were alive. And as soon as he compassionately witnessed her suffering and decided to stay by her side without needing her to remember him, she awoke to remember him.

Reunited in a new dimension of the afterlife that looks like the lake in Switzerland where they first met, the lovebirds effortlessly create every blissful version of reality they can imagine. And for countless time, the beloveds frolic and play in their own co-created heaven, until once again that age-old itch comes along and they decide that it might be fun to reincarnate and play of the game of finding each other one more time. 

What Dreams May Come demonstrates such important metaphors for life and relationships. By compassionately witnessing of our pain, without having to change that pain, it naturally lessons its grip on our hearts enough to remind us that we are actually not that pain. We are the sponges, as my spiritual teacher Marsha Sheldon says, that soak up the pain, but we’re designed to wring it right out.

When we are asked to deny what we are feeling; what we are soaked up in, it is downright impossible to see a new vantage point or absorb a new feeling without the process of honoring why the current feeling absorbing us has shown up to be soaked up in the first place. 

We must seek to understand before we attempt to change an unhappy part of ourselves or another person. For it is in the process of understanding that provides the part in pain with a sense of validation, in turn enticing it to wring itself out, allowing the sponge freedom from the watery weight of emotions that hold it down to a heavy way of seeing things.  

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, bestselling author Steven Covey goes into detail about this process in Habit #5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. "Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving."

When we choose to see through the lens of curiosity over the lens of judgment or dismissal, we just might discover how to unlock the tight grip of emotional wounds that hold on for dear life like frightened children who don’t know how to swim. Compassionate witnessing provides a sense of containment that allows scary and uncomfortable feelings to be understood and have permission to be released. That is all emotions are really ever waiting for. To be held and released. Like the sponge, we pick up feelings, but unless we wring them out, we will not have ‘space’ to absorb something or someone new.

When I was interviewing to be accepted into graduate school, I remember asking a beloved screenwriter/faculty member Gill Dennis (Walk The Line, Return To Oz) what his biggest frustration was with the current AFI fellows. His response was that young filmmakers are often afraid of showing their pain. They show the lead up to it, the aftermath of it, but rarely allow us to be witnesses to the actual experience of it. Is it really true that emotional authenticity is scarier than violence and the external destruction that occurs so often in films and television?  What’s particularly moving about What Dreams May Come in this context is that the theme bravely demonstrates that acceptance of pain’s existence is the most important step on the path to one’s emotional liberation.

The gateway to shifting is feeling gotten. Admitting our vulnerability, pain and sensitivity without needing it to be different than how it feels when it shows up, is the initial path to that shift. Some might view this as a surrendering to a lack of shift, but as What Dreams May Come so beautifully demonstrates, surrendering is the actually the gateway to the shift.

Here's hoping that wherever you are now, it looks and feels a lot like this, Robin Williams. Thank you for your incredible contributions to the hearts and souls of all who cherished you. 

Here's hoping that wherever you are now, it looks and feels a lot like this, Robin Williams. Thank you for your incredible contributions to the hearts and souls of all who cherished you.