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Off the Bus, Off the Wall

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest directed by Milos Forman at the Cheri Theater

By Paul K. Rowe

A few years ago, a slogan was current that went "Support mental health or I'll kill you." One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a residue of that mid-sixties sentiment. Like the button it makes a sick kind of sense, though its message is, finally, silly and, in a simplistic way, evil. Only under flower-child aegis (Kesey's book was celebrated by Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg and other gurus) could a 1975 audience be fed such sexist, crypto-fascist garbage. In the end, it's nothing more than pop psychology on the level of a counter-cultural Reader's Digest. Unless people take it seriously, in which case it's nearly criminal.

Basically, the film takes an absurdly simplistic caricature of traditional theories of mental illness--that anyone deviating from the bland norm should be locked up and lobotomized--and reverses it, adding no subtleties in the process. The result is a prescription that "order" is wrong and that "sub-normal twits and gibbering hunks of animality" should inherit the earth. Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) arrives at a relatively quiet ward in a mental institution, where three-quarters of the patients are "voluntaries," and he proceeds to wreak havoc. The only crazy thing about him, he claims, is that all he wants to do is "fight and fuck." The state work farm has referred him to the doctors, who think he's faking. He does his best to show them they're wrong.

In Kesey's book the reader was bludgeoned into taking McMurphy's side because the asylum doctors were insufferable authority-figures intent on sadistically enforcing their will on a group of harmless human beings too weak to resist them. The facts are changed in the movie, though you're still expected to side with McMurphy. The clinic seems relatively well-run, with no sadism apparent. Dr. Spivey, played by a real asylum shrink, is rather like a Harvard administrator in his comfortable chumminess, generous desire to do good and general inability to see how to do it. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is, in my view, the real hero; in the book she was called simply "Big Nurse." In the film she is well-meaning, prim, and, on the whole, sympathetic--especially when McMurphy begins to take control of the ward. The only thing we are shown that might lead us to dislike her is her unscrupulous use of the meaning of a parliamentary majority in a vote taken in the ward--but one which is technically correct.

The vote is all about McMurphy's demand to see the World Series. That's the ticket. What the patients need is good, ol' American team sports. McMurphy seems largely preoccupied with trying to organize basketball games--teaching a big, supposedly deaf and dumb seven foot Indian how to stuff, for example. During the day it's sports, at night it's poker. McMurphy's real problem is that he is a child who never grew up, who believes in the therapeutic power of good team sports. Perhaps this will strike a responsive chord in most audiences. McMurphy's other chief preoccupation is sex. There is a young boy in the ward named Billy Bibbit who has never had sex and has, apparently, been driven to psychosis and suicide attempts by a repressive mother. His case is the one cure that McMurphy attempts with "alternate psychology." He brings a whore into the ward and pushes Billy into a room with her for the night. In the morning, Billy's stutter is gone. The incident is typical of the instant cure approach to mental health that Forman is purveying. A good game of B-ball and a "good fuck" is all it takes.

WHAT HAPPENS next is the key to the film. When Nurse Ratched arrives the morning after McMurphy's orgy she is justifiably upset at the shambles the ward is in--the medicine has been spilled, the patients are filthy, etc. She vindictively turns on Billy and reduces him to a state of utter pathos by threatening to tell his mother about his night with the woman. Left alone for a minute, the boy commits suicide. McMurphy thereupon throws himself on Ratched and comes very close to strangling her. A guard knocks him out just in time, though, and he's sent off for a lobotomy. Finally the big Indian (who's really been taking "the system" for a ride all along and simply pretending to be deaf and dumb) smothers him quietly in the night.

As melodrama all this is acceptable, though extended for two and a half hours somewhat tiresome. As a film with a message, this is pernicious bullshit. Nurse Ratched's vicious attack on Billy is completely out of character. Nothing in the film up to this point has suggested that her chief purpose is to keep patients under her domination and not to help them. Or are we supposed to take her preference for order over chaos, for cleanliness over filth, as the real prelude to such a cruel act? Her chief role has been to protect the weaker members of the ward from McMurphy--she rations their cigarettes after she finds out that McMurphy has been bilking them away at poker. That the Indian smothers McMurphy is supposed to mean that life as a vegetable is not preferable to death--perhaps this is true. It is appropriate that the film closes with an act of euthanasia, since it points out the major alternative to the system of care the state currently provides. Is it, really, preferable?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is part of an emerging American state of mind, as well as a hang-over of the burnt-out sixties. Taken as a metaphor, it suggests a revolution in the asylum in which the doctors and nurses are overthrown and the inmates reign over all. As a political metaphor it attempts to identify the lot of the oppressed with the lot of the incapable. Even Animal Farm deals with the same theme in a much more complex way. McMurphy's ethic of fuck and fight is hardly a more desirable way to run a society than the way of the nurses and the doctors (whatever the drawbacks of their system). Contemporary critics of psychoanalytic treatment of psychoses like Thomas Szasz have pointed out these drawbacks, and it's a pity that Forman didn't choose to bring any of his intellectually stimulating criticism to bear upon the problem. The result might have been something like Equus, a balanced portrayal of madness and sanity and what each loses by trying to block the other out completely.

McMURPHY'S MADNESS is not a fine one. It is, at heart, an inappropriate response to the issues raised by what society should do with those incapable of functioning within it. Compassion should be the guiding rule of society's response, and this film entirely lacks compassion. The assemblage of mental patients caricatures each one--and each behaves in the manner you'd expect from caricatures of mental illness. One thinks he's Jesus Christ, another can't stand disagreements, another just waltzes and waltzes all day. No attempt to portray the characters in depth is made. The fact that genuine patients are used only raises the degree of exploitation. In no case are we told anything about the possible origins of their psychoses. They are putty to be shaped in McMurphy's hands, and McMurphy is basically out to have a good time--for him that means "fighting and fucking." Since there's precious little of the latter in the all-male ward, he is reduced to a stance of constant truculence which eliminates any trace of compassion he might have ever felt. The funny thing about Forman's film is the complete disharmony between any objective evaluation of the facts and events of the film and the attitude the film clearly wants you to take towards them. Perhaps an analogy would be watching a Nazi propaganda film that expected us to react with pleasure to the destruction of synagogues and the torture of innocent children.

BUT I HAVE yet to substantiate two charges made in the first paragraph--that Forman's film is sexist and crypto-fascist. Both are words meant to surprise and offend, particularly since they have been so over-used by the very people who might be expected to agree with the premises of this film. In the first place, the whole tenor and action of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is sexist. McMurphy sees his treatment in the asylum as emasculating and his favorite response to the greyhaired doctors is to startle them with crude '50s locker-room talk. The feminine principle represented by the nurses is that of order--but order conceived of pettiness, primness, and bitchiness, all summed in Nurse Ratched's threat to "tell your mother." The revolt of the masses is put in terms of the all-male ward standing up to its female overseers, and part of the reason we are supposed to sympathize with the revolt is that we are expected to consider the sight of women telling men what to do offensive to our basic human instincts, part of the reversal of basic humanity that is supposed to take place within the asylum.

The basic premises of Forman's film are also what by common consent we now call fascist (although it bears only tangential relation to "fascist" regimes of the thirties). That is, it preaches violence over due process, irrationality over rationality, and might over right. There is nothing in this film to indicate that madness may have any positive intellectual value--only the sense that any restriction of brute animal instinct is unjustified. Self-expression of the strong is the sole good. McMurphy differs from the other patients in that he remains physically unimpaired while mentally he's just as hopeless as they are--even more so since, unlike most of them, he doesn't realize there is anything wrong with him.

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