Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.



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Cinema Therapy — Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.

Here Today

Love grants in a moment what toil can hardly achieve in an age. ─ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Here Today, starring Billy Crystal, is a comedy-drama (dramedy) about life’s pain and joy, family relationships, mentorship and CHARLIE BURNZ’s worsening condition, dementia, which Charlie conceals from his two adult children, his work colleagues, and his employer. Crystal plays an aging, out-of-step dinosaur and comedy-writing legend whose heyday was in the 1970s and 80s. He is now in the grip of early dementia. Billy Crystal also produced, directed and co-wrote the film, sharing script credit with original “Saturday Night Live” writer and “It’s the Garry Shandling’s Show” co-creator, Alan Zeibel, based on the latter’s short story, “The Prize.”

As the story goes, Charlie gets through his days trying to come off as someone in possession of his faculties which, of course, he isn’t. While walking to work, he has to keep reminding himself of the direction he needs to take, demonstrating that his memory isn’t strong. We see his coping strategies breakdown when his route to work is blocked. Later, while being interviewed about one of his most successful movies, Charlie forgets important names but plays it off as a joke. Another time, during a live show, Charlie walks onstage and unleashes his anger at a cast member who can’t enunciate properly, but Charlie does it in such a funny way that it engages the audience and the taped skit goes viral. Charlie’s spontaneity is lauded as brilliant. Everyone believes this was a dazzlingly improvised performance, but it soon becomes apparent that Charlie is actually ill.

We witness Charlie meet with his physician and wrestle with the truth that he is in the early stages of dementia. Charlie must face his denial. He has to tell his adult children and his employer the truth, but he can’t yet. Adding to his growing torment is that he is haunted by self-blaming memories. We learn that early in his career Charlie chose to put his creative work ahead of his role as a husband and father, a decision that has had negative repercussions, including the resentment of his family. The story demonstrations how one can make choices but cannot predict the outcome, his feeling responsible for the death of his wife Carrie from a car accident. During their marriage, she’d grown weary of begging him to spend more time with his family. One day she met him up at work to take him to their beach house so they could sit together and watch the sunset the way they used to do. He agreed but said he first had to go back inside the building for five minutes to talk to a comedian about the skit. He left her sitting in the car, and didn’t come back for hours. He forgot. When he arrived back at the spot, Carrie and the car were gone. She’d left to drive to the beach house alone and on the way she was killed by a drunk driver. Charlie’s guilt and regret over those earlier life choices created the strained relationship between himself and his children. Now the clock is ticking on the prospect of repairing it.

Choices, and their surprising outcomes, run like a thread through the film, exemplified by the flashback of his chance meeting of his future wife, Carrie, while walking on the same beach. Each chance meeting carries a hidden story in itself, buried in Charlie’s love, his pain, and the tense, anxious, edgy behavior of his estranged adult children, even as he struggles to remember their names.

It is in this emotionally vacant state that Charlie meets Emma Payge, a black, “loud and proud” New York street-singer a few generation-gaps younger. They meet in an unconventional fashion, via a fundraiser in which Charlie Burnz is one of the auctioned-off prizes ─ “lunch with a respected old fogey gig writer for a cable sketch show.” They hit it off and form an unlikely friendship. Emma, who eventually becomes his caretaker, bridges the communication gap between Charlie and his family. Charlie, who has been living a deadened life since Carrie’s death, is pulled back into the world by Emma which includes them attending his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. Initially, his kids resent his oddball relationship. They don’t know that Charlie and Emma are just friends. Later, Emma tells them that she is there for him ─ because he has dementia. Telling the truth to his family helps them to move past the estrangement and they reunite. Her honesty has helped Charlie deal with his own denial about his illness.

There is a scene at the end where Charlie’s 13-year-old granddaughter comes to visit and he hires an Uber to take them to the beach house to watch the sunset, as he had done with Carrie during their relationship. Later, Emma, now staying to care for him during his decline, encourages him to write his memoir in which he tells about his life and his love for Carrie.

In the end, Charlie moves through the pain and lives out loud through Emma. His children are forgiving and reconnect in a loving way, a step towards recapturing the time wasted ─ since we are all Here Today and gone tomorrow!

Psychological Implications

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed. ─ CG Jung

As a film, Here Today is a bit disjointed, just like our lead character, Charlie Burnz, who makes important life choices but doesn’t assess their impact on his wife and children. True, we don’t always know the outcome of our choices, but Charlie continuously puts his career goals and need for validation and approval over the emotional needs of his family. He communicates best through his comedy writing routines but gets caught up in the “love” for work. All his wife Carrie wants is for Charlie to spend more time with them, yet Charlie continually disappoints them by putting them “on hold.” Over time, his marriage has disintegrated into a one-way street, lacking in emotional intimacy and reciprocity. They are no longer a team. He has missed out on fatherhood as well, not “seeing” his children’s pain and loss, forcing them all to live in a time warp, emotionally isolated and alone. When his wife is killed, rather than reach out to his children, Charlie internalized his pain and guilt. As his children’s resentment builds, they cut him off, growing further apart and stuck in time ─ until “loud and proud” Emma enters the scene as bridge and connector.

The film presents us with the question of how do we deal with the overwhelming crisis of knowing we are losing our identity? If you have ever lost your wallet, you experience a low level of identity loss. Through Charlie, we experience the fear of the profound loss of our mind, due to something (the dementia) that we cannot control. Our mind holds the memories of our life’s work, along with the memories we treasure (such as Charlie’s love for Carrie). They end up slipping away due to the worsening deterioration of dementia. Even before the onset of dementia, Charlie was already empty!

Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain. Depending on the area of the brain that's damaged, dementia can affect people differently and cause both psychological and cognitive changes. Charlie’s changes, at this point in the movie, appear to be cognitive: memory loss, difficulty communicating or finding words, spatial abilities (getting lost walking to work), reasoning or problem-solving, handling complex tasks, difficulty with planning and organizing, coordination, motor functions, confusion and disorientation. He also experiences some psychological disturbances: personality changes, agitation, anxiety, depression, and inappropriate behavior.

Here Today is an important film about individuals and families dealing with issues related to mental illness, denial, mortality and the unpredictable consequences of life choices. The film illustrates the multiple instances in life in which you can choose choices but not the outcome. Our lives are not always set in stone, predetermined by an agenda of our own making.

Charlie holds on to secrets: the biggest one being his dementia, and it is the basis, the heartbreaking focus, of this touching look at the possibility of learning to live with denial, sorrow, memory loss, and facing one’s mortality. It gives hope that there are ways, even when it seems too late, to mend broken relationships and bridge communication gaps. We can learn to speak the truth and stop holding on to grudges and resentments because life is just too short.

In the end, Emma is the bridge to Charlie’s reconnection with both his family and his soul ─ from cold and empty inside to loud, proud, and full of passion for life outside, even with his dementia. Once again, he creatively tackles his writer’s block attempting to finish a memoir celebrating his life with his deceased wife Carrie and children “before the words run out.”

Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D. (PSY22909) is a clinical psychologist who practices in Encino. She leads Women's Empowerment Groups that help women learn the tools to move beyond self-destructive relationship patterns. She may be reached at 818.501.4123 or Her office address is 16055 Ventura Blvd. #1129 Encino, CA 91436.

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San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists