Wednesday, June 27, 2007
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; drama, USA, 1975; D: Miloš Forman, S: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, Scatman Crothers, Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli
R. P. McMurphy, a lazy small time crook, pretends to be insane in order to be transferred to a comfortable mental institution instead of a prison. He does, to a institution run by the cold and ruthless nurse Ratched, and quickly makes friends with the patients. He also starts rebelling against the dictator like conditions of nurse Ratched, even escaping with the patients in a bus to go fishing. One day he starts a fight with a male nurse and gets punished with electroshock. McMurphy and Chief Bromden manage to open the window of the institution and let two of his girls in, letting one of them have intercourse with the timid patient Billy. When nurse Ratched sees the chaos the next morning she vows to Billy that she is going to tell everything to his mother, upon which the young lad commits suicide. McMurphy attacks her, but is captured by the ward and punished by a lobotomy. Chief suffocates him with a pillow and breaks away from the institution.
As a subversive reaction to a lot of turmoil in the 60s and 70s, allegorical drama "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" became very popular and was awarded with several prizes. In one hilarious scene from the film, the main protagonist McMurphy (a very good Jack Nicholson) is in the mental institution, trying to play poker with his colleagues, the patients, but he is getting more and more irritated by the annoying, loud music coming from the control room. Finally, he snaps and goes into the control room demanding the music to be appeased. But nurse Ratched tells him to leave the room first and then tell her his complaint. He does and repeats his demand, but she simply rejects him telling that the music has to be this loud since many old patients wouldn't be able to hear it. This is one of the crucial sequences in the story that caused many to interpret it in this way—the sole title already hints at trying to achieve something that is impossible or futile (a cuckoo does not make nests, so trying to fly over it is a contradiction) while the mental institution is a symbol for any dictatorship or autocratic system. Who benefits the most from these systems? The ones in charge, the ones on top, so they intend to constantly keep everything rigid, everything always the same, in order to not allow any kind of changes or progress. Nurse Ratched represents the cold authority that is making their lives miserable through bureaucracy, lies, oppression and dumb laws. McMurphy is fighting against that oppression, but all of his attempts are tragic because they don't make any difference, no matter how he tries. It's even more subversive than that: as soon as someone is labelled mentally ill, he is immediately stripped of his usual rights.
Even democracy is subtly ridiculed as useless in a police state in the scene where McMurphy wants all the patients to vote to watch a baseball game on TV, but many of them are simply too afraid to raise their hand in front of nurse Ratched. Considering that Miloš Forman was an emigre from the Communist dictatorship, the allegory becomes all the more clear—he directs the film in a very objective way, with raw, wild energy and sense for bizarre humor (during a basketball game the tall Indian Chief raises his arm to close the net and throw the ball of the enemy out of the basket; McMurphy stops the snoring of a patient by blocking his nose with his fingers...), but in a way he also made some solid mistakes. The whole escape and fishing sequence doesn't work, and near the end McMurphy and Chief open the window of the institution in the middle of the night in order to escape—but for some reason they don't and as nurse Ratched finds them the next morning, they suddenly for some illogical reason try to escape again—what where they waiting for the whole night?! Louise Fletcher is amazing as the tyrant, stubborn nurse Ratched, an example of calculated selfishness, though her character is somewhat one-dimensional. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a deep and powerful metaphor—McMurphy left a legacy which then continues his quest for the "unthinkable", an idea which in the long turn changes the system, making the film a universal piece of history (for instance, Martin Luther King also sought change, which was considered impossible back then, yet later on, a man, inspired by his deeds, became President of the US, Barack Obama, making a full circle).