Reviewing James L. Brooks' Movie Spanglish

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Although there are many practical and daily applications of Paul Watzlawick’s Systems Theory perhaps one of the greatest cinematic opportunities for application is the movie Spanglish. Through a number of scenes in the movie the viewer is able to identify key aspects of Systems Theory such as the idea of the family system, family homeostasis, punctuation, and key methods of communication. The movie consists of a vast array of scenes worthy of analyzing and also consists of characters including John Clasky; the father, Deborah Clasky; the mother, Bernice; the daughter, Georgie; the son, Evelyn; the grandmother, Flor; the maid, and Cristina; Flor’s daughter. The Clasky family decides to get a maid whose actions, together with her daughter’s have a profound impact on the family structure. One of the most interesting scenes where one could apply Watzlawick’s principles is the scene where Deborah Clasky, the mother of the Clasky household takes Cristina, her maid’s daughter out without asking permission. The scene not only plays out in an engaging cinematic manner but is also a great way to apply Systems Theory to an interplay of family events.

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This particular scene starts out with the Clasky family’s maid, Flor Moreno, waking up in her employer’s family home where she is working and living to find that her daughter is gone from the room. She then finds out that her employer and the mother of the household, Deborah Clasky has taken Cristina, Flor’s daughter out shopping with her. Flor is frantic the entire day until Cristina finally comes home with Deborah and a couple strips of her hair dyed. When Deborah and Cristina come home Deborah’s mother, Evelyn, states, “You can’t just take someone else’s kid and then make them over”. Deborah replies to this by saying, “Don’t go there or I’ll go there, and you know where “there” is”. After an elapse in time Flor brings Deborah a letter expressing her anger over the day’s events and Deborah then states, “This was written in anger. Will you hold on? Sleep on it”.

This particular scene is exemplary of quite a few Systems Theory concepts. For example, the viewer gets a glimpse of the family system which, according to Griffin is, “a self-regulating, interdependent network of feedback loops guided by members’ rules,” in which, “the behavior of each person affects and is affected by the behavior of another” (Griffin 170). Although the father and children of the family are not present in this scene, the mother, grandmother, maid, and her daughter are, all of whom are members of this family system the affect and are affected by others. The viewer also gets the sense that this family is not in a state of family homeostasis or, “the tacit collusion of family members to remain the status quo” (Griffin 171). This is clearly illustrated by the anger and outrage that is expressed by Flor in response to Deborah taking her daughter out for the day without asking for permission as well as the revealing of the shaky relationship between Deborah and her mother. Deborah taking Cristina out without consulting Flor clearly upsets Flor and upsets the family dynamic.

In looking at this lack of family homeostasis it is also viable to analyze Deborah’s interaction with her mother. Deborah’s response of “Don’t go there or I’ll go there, and you know where ‘there’ is”, to Evelyn’s statement that Deborah shouldn’t be taking another person’s child is an example of quite a few things. For example, it illustrates the difference between content, “the report part of a message,” and relationship, “the command part of the message” (Griffin 172). The content in this verbal exchange is Deborah telling her mother to “back off” while there is ultimately a deeper relationship present of Deborah passively referring to her mother’s alcoholism, which is shown later in the movie. Deborah’s comment is also an example of one-up communication, “a conversational move to gain control of the exchange; attempted domination” (Griffin 174). By bringing up and disobeying the family’s implicit rule of not talking about grandma’s alcoholism Deborah is, in a sense, putting her mother down by bringing up a topic that she knows her mother will not have a cohesive response to, therefore weakening Evelyn’s possible argument.

Although it is easy to analyze the family system from an exterior or outside view it is important to look at how the characters view the events as well. In terms of punctuation which, according to page 173 of Griffin’s text is, “interpreting an ongoing sequence of events by labeling one event as the cause and the following event as the response”, each character’s opinion is different. For example, for Flor the altercation began when she saw Cristina straying away from her Mexican, working class roots and Deborah taking her daughter out solidified this anger. For Deborah, on the other hand, the altercation began as soon as she was confronted when returning home so there was more than likely no previous engagements that had set her off. This difference in punctuation is important because when individuals are in an argument one of the contributing factors is often the fact that the individuals are not on the same page over what they are arguing over. By identifying and possibly clearing up this difference in punctuation it is possible to engage in metacommunication and resolve the issue sooner than later and in a positive manner.

The process of metacommunication or, “communication about communication” found on page 172 of Griffin, would have been incredibly valuable towards the end of the scene where Flor is attempting to give Deborah a letter stating her emotions and Deborah refuses it simply telling Flor to, “sleep on it”. Metacommunication would have been beneficial to both parties in this situation because each one needed to open up and be clear about their feelings and the feelings of the other party in order to engage in conversation and come to a resolution and furthermore reinstate (or instate) the notion of family homeostasis. Perhaps one of the reasons that metacommunication was difficult in this case is the fact that Flor is caught in a double bind and is therefore, “a person trapped under mutually exclusive expectations” (Griffin 175). Flor is expected to be subservient to Deborah because Deborah is her boss yet Deborah also expects Flor to be able to stand up for herself as a woman and protect her child as any woman would. Flor is then trapped because her action in either of the scenarios will result in some type of negative reaction from Deborah so Flor is unable to do much, if anything at all in the situation.

Overall, although there are many aspects of Systems Theory that are easily applicable to the movie, it is also important to acknowledge that the same application must be done in our own family systems and personal lives. It is, in fact, easy to point out specific examples of Watzlawick’s work in situations that we are not directly involved in but we must all commit to reframing in certain situations in order to better understand what is going on and genuinely engage in positive communication with those around us.

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