When we put our faith in the society and institutions therein to decide the rules of living, we can either believe we are coming at a social agreement or realize that it just leads to greater ambiguities as to where, and much more importantly how, we really draw the line on pertinent issues. This is what the story is all about. We see here all kinds of ambiguities and the processes by which we try to delineate norms and laws. It talks of going through legitimate channels in hopes of negotiating what we want. And yes, individuals who are judged as mentally unstable have the same access to it. After all, isn’t the point of them being in the asylum one of the many products of social ambiguities too?
Two logical assumptions support the existence of asylums- the first being a societal filter to segregate the able-bodied from the incapacitated and the second being a restoration, or in more grieve cases, a reset factory for a deviant individual to be possibly reintegrated to society. Strange, but with regards to the second assumption, it’s as if the focus of Milos Forman’s movie rarely lingers in the asylum’s creed of societal reintegration. Ironically enough, it presents what seems to be a case of a micro-society with its set of well-imposed conformist protocols and a small political community stricken with a dictatorship hiding behind a veil of democratic practices.
Originally based from Ken Kesey’s novel (1962), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) narrates the story of a boisterous man named Randall Patrick McMurphy whose shrewd crazy act lands him in an asylum facility under the rule of Nurse Ratched. In an environment that runs on predetermined, clockwork-precision activities, McMurphy’s find himself in a betting game to go around the rules according to his satisfaction with the ultimate goal of bringing down the nurse from her tyrannical stronghold. Beneath the surface of the plot, we could see an intricately woven context of power (or the abuse of it), social determinism, and concepts such as democracy, efficacy and finally, participation.
On a symbolic level, Nurse Ratched is deemed as the system. With an overarching power to the administration and the patients under her ward, her command goes beyond meetings and medication and trickles down to policy creation and mandates as to how every patient should conduct themselves. Such capacity is familiar to being an absolute power if it weren’t for the fact that a kind of democratic façade is under operation. It’s a façade because of the fear of standing up- or in this case, raising your hand. The overly allocated power at the nurse’s hand is an enough source of intimidation, if not the coercion at times of great need. Clearly, between Nurse Ratched and the patients, there’s a distinct relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed. This is where McMurphy’s character enters like a case of messianic complex. Whether his intention maybe noble or just for his commitment to gambling, he intends to deliver his fellow acute patients from their predicament whether or not they realize that they want to be pulled out from it in the first place.
If we analyze closely, the main problem why patients are too afraid is because of their deterministic nature. Come to think about it, the situation makes sense. These people diagnosed of being unable to thrive in a society are made to accept that they are deviant, that they do not follow or have a grasp to social norms that are given by nature. Once within the asylum, they are brainwashed that the only solution to re-enter society is to be a conformist. Thus, it comes no surprise if they wish to follow to every word of the nurse and much more to fear of going against it. The result is a clear example of how one grants permission to be oppressed and for the oppressor to gain more power. According to Ferguson (1997) as cited by Fischer (2010), “to avoid this [determinism-responsibility] problem, any explanation of how systems of domination are supported by dominators and submitted to by subordinates must avoid being deterministic in a way that implies that both those who benefit and those who are oppressed are not morally responsible for challenging and resisting those systems.”
If his mates are social determinists, McMurphy stands on the extreme opposite side of the spectrum. His character clearly portrays rebellion and nonconformism at every turn. He clashes with the system since day one and challenges to give life to their feeble democratic voting system over policies (though they seldom work) and even to break rules for his mere entertainment. Come to think of it, he is crazy in a way normal, free-minded people could be once they are stripped or denied of their duly accorded rights, even if it’s just voting for the right to witness the World Series.
The thrill of watching the film begins when McMurphy spreads what is known as internal efficacy, that is, ‘the confidence in the ability to influence public affairs’ (Norris, 2005). There are no longer silent meetings where the nurse has to prod them continuously to extract a response. Instead, speeches are done more often (and voluntarily) along side with petitions and critical questioning as to the existence of policies. They finally found there voice and demands change. If parallelized in the bigger society, such changes are barely met without resistance. Especially if there’s a dictator holding on to power. At the start of this change wave, the nurse uses soft power (through intimidation, persuasion and command of office) to keep things in order. By the time it proved to be non-effective, she resorts to hard power (force) as a last resort. This is shown by sending patients such as McMurphy, Chief Bromden and Cheswick to the electro shock therapy after finding their behavior to be ‘disruptive’. And this was seen later on too when lobotomy was performed at McMurphy returning him back to the ward as a certified vegetable for life. Of course one can argue that those things are done for purely ‘therapeutically’ reasons. After all, the asylum is meant to cure them. But when it comes down to empathizing with the experiences of these patients, it seems more harm is done than good. By this time, the scenario begins the way it started when patients couldn’t find their voice again after realizing that there’s no point of fighting with the system.
I’d like to comment too on a certain character that I find to be truly interesting- Chief Bromden. The reason for him being committed to the asylum was not mentioned explicitly. Though implicitly, it might be because of his Indian Chief turned defeatist-drunkard of a father or the World War (or maybe both). Whatever the cause is, in truth he doesn’t deserve to be there the same way that McMurphy entered the premises to escape from work farm. His background story present in the book (though omitted in the movie) gives as another content to talk about. In particular, it’s the story of how the native Indians are displaced of their natural habitat and how, to a wider implication minorities are being undervalued and mistreated by a government who works under the empty slogan of the ‘greater good’. Whether it is turning to a drunkard or being branded as insane, the issue is that these minorities are most likely to suffer ill fate at the mercy of the public majority that does not understand, or intend to understand, the way they live. It is the very reason why Chief Bromden pretended to be deaf all these years. Nobody bothered to listen anyway.
With Chief Bromden’s escape, the conclusion tells us that failure to resolve a social ambiguity may ultimately lead to individualistic pursuits- that our lives above all still is in our own hands. The system is showcased to be hopeless and unyielding. Therefore the only choice left is to break the window, run to the open world, and reclaim freedom through your own means. Who knows, away from repression, there might be better chances of re-negotiating your existence.
Fischer, C. (2010). Consciousness and conscience: feminism, pragmatism, and the potential for radical change. Studies in Social Justice, 4(1), 67-85.
Norris, P. (2005). Political activism: New challenges, new opportunities. Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics, Oxford University Press
- Liane Candelario
“One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”
Presented by a children’s nursery rhyme (entitled Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn) is an entire introductory metaphorical concept to Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are two elements that fly in oppositional combative directions that are meant to create an obvious conflict. And one, as mentioned, flies over the cuckoo’s nest (the asylum housing ‘cuckoos’) and seemingly becomes an omnipotent eye and ear to the whole mental institution. The film is set in a mental hospital but it is not a film about mental illness. The title hints of insanity but our anti-hero, Randle “RP” McMurphy is not one to be claimed to be a mental patient. What, then, must the film be exactly about?
In Cuckoo’s Nest, we are introduced to Nurse Mildred Ratched who embodies the full denotation of an iron fist and heads a mental ward where the film is generally set (except for a fishing trip sequence). We are also introduced to free-spirited recidivist criminal RP McMurphy who is to be ‘evaluated’ for his previous actions and is the primary cause of his indefinite stay in Ratched’s ward. The film is, simplistically, an allegorical statement to conformism to the Establishment, to the Man, and to the basic status quo. Here, Nurse Ratched personifies the whole Establishment while RP McMurphy obtrudes in his motives and actions his anti-establishment beliefs. Nurse Ratched, palpably enough, is the one flying to the East and RP McMurphy is the one flying to the West. This makes up the primary conflict of the whole film.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considerably one of the greatest and most unforgettable American films of all time. I have seen it listed on almost every Favorites and Greatest lists, both mainstream audiences to film critics alike. It is great because of its simplistic approach and style and yet how it manifests the makings of a perfectly stitched narrative film. It is unforgettable because even after three decades of its conception to the film world, Cuckoo’s Nest tackled issues and themes that most likely still are relevant and contemporary in every sense of its perception and analysis.
Roger Ebert, in his wonderful review of the film, posed a necessary question for discussion: “Is One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest not a great film because it is manipulative, or is it great because it is so superbly manipulative?” Manipulative here is used in the sense of its ‘scheming’ and not of its ‘controlling’ denotation. But is it manipulative just to the audiences, generally? Or manipulative in the underlying analysis of the film’s sometimes faulty but still workable elements? Its popularity does endure the test of time because the mental patients – or rather, for some, volunteers to the mental institution – are used as mere accessories and not as real individuals to be taken in depth. It is as always remembered and sometimes even categorized a comedy because it is comical, whimsical, and unbelievably false. This strengthens the allegorical nature the film as it is to be taken as – it is a parable, and after all, the metaphorical statement is derived from a children’s folk song.
What is also most effective of the film is its keen and precise detail of its mise-en-scene. Take for example McMurphy’s apparel as opposed to the bland dirty-white uniform of his fellow inmates. He dresses himself in a way that still appears to be part of the norm, that he is indeed, not at all a lunatic that should adhere to the system’s instruction of wearing such passé-looking clothes. Nurse Ratched, however, being the head figure of the ward, is dressed in a way that it exudes a militaristic personality – with her nurse’s costume as if it were an imperative military commanding officer’s uniform, her nurse hat and her usual entrancing black cape. Also, as if acting like a separate accessory to her complete uniform is the silent nurse who acts like her ‘side-kick’ or in a better sense, her executive officer, her second-in-command. These elements -- alongside the wholly locked-up (even from their own personal dorm rooms!) and dull interiors of the mental asylum, the patients’ and volunteers’ uniforms, the glass door separation from nurses to their tending men – all elicit a kind of claustrophobic set-up that seems to choke every air of humanity of its all seemingly sane cuckoos. RP McMurphy is the only contrast to this order, in his dominatingly black apparel (his bonnet, his jackets, and his pants) and is the one claiming anarchic freedom, bringing to his fellow inmates a taste of this freedom as well.
The cinematography and the editing of every shot and reaction shot of the film is also too keen and precise that it exhibits the necessary emotions that it tries to give out all too well. At every morning group discussion, each of the inmates is always given a close-up shot introducing every reactionary emotion they give out to in varying degrees that strengthen the innate trait of every character. Take for example, Charles Cheswick who is overpowered by the inner child in his mind, always cries to get what he wants and stomps his way into tantrums. The stuttering and frightful Bobby Bibbit, however, is usually unspeakable even when the discussion upends into a ruckus. In the fishing trip sequence, McMurphy introduces each of the inmates as doctors and they react, partially in common sense (which as they are not so common at all they suddenly had have), all too humanly as if they did not have any psychological problems at all and were normal people enjoying a bogus all-doctor fishing trip. The close-ups help, especially with McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and Chief Bromden, because they all present a distinct contrast to every person’s motivation and intrinstic nature. McMurphy usually wrinkles his forehead and puts on an annoyed eyeing-everyone face. Chief Bromden, who fakes his deaf-mute condition, is seen as passive but whenever he looks at McMurphy does he only summon a mischievous smirk. Nurse Ratched’s face-time induces a stern and steely woman who does not want to veer away from schedule, organization, and formality. This effectively brings out the embodiment of every representational elements of the film: McMurphy is anti-establishment, Nurse Ratched is the Establishment, and Chief Bromden is caught up in between two forces that he remains the passive deemed-as-dumb Indian.
Being a social commentary on conformist governments and societies, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s attributing to this issue ends in what remains to be present in our modern set-up today. McMurphy has such a startling effect on his fellow inmates – always suggesting that they aren’t what they think they are at all, that the man on the street is worse off than them actually – that he isn’t much of an anti-hero at all. What remains a mystery is that despairing line that divided his will to stay for a while (until he finds out that is committed indefinitely) and act as leader-teacher to his fellow inmates and the will to escape, as he is sick of the place, sick of the rules, sick of the Establishment which is, Nurse Ratched. In the end, we find out what he chooses and what remains again, a mystery, is why he chooses to see for himself Bibbit’s bloody suicide spot rather than freeing himself from the closed and claustrophobic system. However, it is not a mystery as to why the film’s narrative chose for McMurphy to stay as they decide to uphold optimism on the Chief’s escape (which sets off a parallel – parallel in the filmic sense of the word – on McMurphy’s failed attempt and Chief’s successful one). The lifting of the hydrotherapy console symbolizes the difficulty – or even, the impossibility -- for escape from the asylum and how, in the earlier part of the film, McMurphy fails to lift it and says: “But I tried, goddamit. At least I did that.” This, however, again brings up another thread of discussion as to what exactly did McMurphy try? He tried to let his boys think in the way of his thinking – live free, even if it meant to die trying. He tried to reform the organizational and carefully worked-out instructions of the Establishment that only aimed to better their living condition in their small institution. He tried to have his boys experience a taste of the real outside world as if to introduce their reintegration to the wider view of society, that it wasn’t at all too difficult as they would think it would be. And at last, he tried to escape as if to say that his job is already done but the locked-up walls of the mental hospital devours his wish as if to say his job isn’t over yet, isn’t fully accomplished at all.
In these interlacing themes of lunacy paired with a conformist system guised in a flawed democracy, to what extent does it become a full mirroring of a larger scale of the social order? It must be then that it serves as an entire metaphor, an entire representation to a wider society, a wider institution. “Forman himself noted that the asylum was a metaphor for the Soviet Union and the desire to escape.” RP McMurphy’s character is drenched with all these desires to escape for his anarchic motivations. He does what he pleases but he dwells in a closed system. This, now, results in a chaotic turn of events that lead to his tragic end. The film has beautifully weaved a man’s tale that tells not exactly of a greater moral victory and certainly not of hopelessness and pessimism of our society’s current status, but the idea of the acceptance of one’s fate – in the sense that fate does not choose where one leads but in the better perspective that one chooses where he leads his fate to.
Ebert, Roger. (2003, February 2). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Retrieved from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030202/REVIEWS08/302020301/1023
Dirks, Tim. Filmsite Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/onef.html
- Hil PetersenVargas