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March 25, 2019

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Local psychology professor creator of ‘cinema therapy’

Practice what you preach. It's not just a motto, but a way of life for Dr. Gary Solomon.

For most of his life the 52-year-old found himself glued to the TV watching films of all kinds: First as a child in the early '50s watching movie marathons at home, and later as an adult in his late 30s in a squalid motel room as his life unraveled around him.

"When I would look at film, I didn't know what I was looking at," said Solomon, a full-time faculty member at the Community College of Southern Nevada in Henderson, where he teaches psychology. "It wasn't until later on, (when) I began to revisit all those works, that I began to connect them together."

That "connection," he discovered, was an emotional catharsis he gained from watching those movies; one that helped him cope with the struggles of his life. If it worked for him, he reasoned, it could work for others.

So he decided to write a book, "The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning" (Aslan Publishing, 1995; $12.95), and "The Movie Doctor" was born.

His method? "Cinema therapy," a term he created and copyrighted, where movies are used as a psychological aid in dealing with emotional and psychological trauma and the emotional baggage that comes along with it.

Ultimately, it's a simple concept: a movie as a prescription for most psychological maladies.

For example, if someone is experiencing problems with family or in relationships, or is going through a divorce, Solomon recommends watching "Accidental Tourist."

Or, if someone thinks they're losing their sanity, Solomon recommends watching "Girl Interrupted" or "The Snake Pit," movies that deal with mental breakdowns and can provide a visual representation for someone to compare.

"What I've done is group movies under issues -- abandonment, alcoholism, drugs and so on," he said, so readers or therapists can easily find the movie that relates to the problem.

The idea, of course, is that with the aid of an audio-visual medium a person can better understand a problem he or she may have on their own, or if he or she is seeing a therapist, have something to discuss: "What is it in the movie that touched you or did not touch you? What is it that bothered you? What did you find in the movie that confronted you?"

As to his own movie prescription, Solomon found a connection with many films.

A self-described "latch-key kid," the psychotherapist and author has had quite a life: From his humbling days as a child -- and later as an adult -- wrestling with illiteracy; to his financial rise in real estate via good fortune and business acumen; to his dramatic fall due to his excesses -- particularly drugs -- and finally his soul-searching turnaround.

Fade in

Solomon's story begins Nov. 22, 1947, in Los Angeles, where he was raised one of two children by a father, who was a painter, and a mother, who was an office worker. His dad completed eighth grade, his mom 12th, so education wasn't deemed a priority in the house -- especially reading.

"I asked my father why he didn't read to me when I was a baby," Solomon said. "He said, 'Because you didn't ask.' "

So, Solomon watched a lot of TV -- theatrical films that were being broadcast -- if only to escape for a couple of hours. It didn't matter what it was, classic or camp, Solomon ate it up. But his illiteracy didn't go away.

In fact, Solomon did not learn to read or write until his sophomore year in high school, and even then remained functionally illiterate -- meaning he could only read and write some words -- until late into his 30s.

But it never stopped him. He had a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in public health from UCLA by the time he was in his mid-20s.

Later he began to dabble in real estate. As the California real estate market skyrocketed in the early '70s, Solomon found himself a multimillionaire.

But he wasn't finished.

He later opened the Cookie Factory in Eagle Rock, Calif. Eventually changing the name to the Cookie Store, he opened up a 32-store chain across the South and made millions more.

It was now the early '80s and Solomon was on top of the world.

Things were about to change.

Still wrestling with his feelings of inadequacy over his functional illiteracy and personal demons from his dysfunctional family life, Solomon needed something to help ease the pain. He turned to drugs.

He said at the height of his addiction he spent $5,000 a month, often signing away checks as soon as he received them.

"It's not the drugs that costs the money, it's the not taking care of business that costs the money," he said. "Because I'm not functioning, I'm not able to take care of business."

Financial losses due to bad real estate investments began to eat away at his cookie company profits. Eventually his self-described "house of cards"-business empire collapsed, leaving Solomon broke and with an expensive drug habit.

Solomon, now 38, found himself financially and mentally destitute in a Marina Del Rey, Calif., hotel room scratching lottery tickets for some quick cash.

At rock bottom Solomon contemplated suicide but found he was too afraid to go through with it. With nothing else in his life, he once again found himself in front of the TV, watching movies for emotional aid.

It wasn't until a few years later, while working on his master's in social work at the University of Tennessee, that Solomon began to equate the two.

"What I believe now is whereas (director Steven) Spielberg saw the movie and saw angles and cameras and acting, I dealt with it emotionally," he said. "I saw what was going on with the person, not the character. To me they were real."

He began to test this theory during sessions with patients he had while serving as an intern at U.T. When he went to Arizona State University to work on a PhD in social work as well as teach, he started a full-time practice. Seeing patients allowed him to further test and develop the use of cinema therapy, which he said was met with positive results.

Solomon said that he no longer was functionally illiterate. And with tools such as the word processor, writing became much easier. Now he could tackle what he considers his biggest feat -- writing a book.

Now married, Solomon's wife, Robin Huhn, was the first to suggest he write a book about movies as a form of therapy. It was the idea he needed and in 1993 he began writing the book.

After two drafts he was finished and it was quickly picked up and published.

"And to this day it is the crowning achievement of moving out of illiteracy," he said.

But he's not finished with cinema therapy yet. After completing his PhD in psychology from Pacific Western University, three years ago he and his wife relocated to Las Vegas. Shortly thereafter Solomon began work on a book sequel, "More Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call Me in the Morning," and although he's no longer a practicing psychotherapist, he continues to present his ideas in both classroom lectures and in research.

And then there's the motion picture.

Some movie producers read Solomon's "Motion Picture Prescription," and after talking with him flew Solomon and his wife to Hawaii where he penned a screenplay on the book as well as parts of his life.

"I can't really get into details about the story because they asked me not to," he said, "but I hope to see it on the big screen or on television next summer."

Reel help

Although using films in therapy is not necessarily a new idea -- other psychologists have employed a similar technique for years -- Solomon said his was the first book published on the subject.

And now with another book and a movie coming soon, it certainly would seem that cinema therapy is well on its way to becoming an accepted theraputic technique. Solomon said, however, that won't happen until there's scientific evidence to suggest the therapy works, and that the work he's performed with it so far, as an educator and therapist, has been on too limited a scale for to form a definitive conclusion.

"In good science we pose the question and then do the research and hope to have an answer we can give as positive or negative," he said. "Oftentimes the answer comes out that we need to do more research."

Which is what's happening now, with ongoing research at UCLA as well as with organizations in Costa Rica, London and elsewhere in Europe, all of which are still in infant stages.

And there are people who are using cinema therapy now. Solomon said he receives calls from people around the world asking him about the technique.

Carlo DeFazio, a psychology and sociology instructor at CCSN, said he has had great success employing the technique with patients in counseling sessions.

"I think the folks take to the movie better than the counseling," he said. "They see their own life story, something that happened with the movie that doesn't happen with one-on-one therapy.

"Movies are the guiding mythology of the United States today ... Put it in the world of psychology and it works very well."

As for the therapy's acceptance by his peers, Solomon sounded uncharacteristically pessimistic. "I doubt I will live to see this in practice," he said. But he maintained that over time cinema therapy will become more widespread.

Which is what Solomon wants. Not for ego or financial reasons, he said, but simply to serve as a conduit for others to achieve happier, healthier lives, just as he did.

And people say nothing good comes out of Hollywood.