1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The Fate of Randle McMurphy
This is the story of the day I learned that life isn’t fair.
I was about 9, maybe 10. Now obviously you learn from the age of about 2 or 3 that life can be embarrassing, annoying and unreasonable. The noisy adult shapes in your life tell you that you can’t do something or you can’t have that and that touching that will burn your hand off bla bla bla and you scream and kick but they ignore you etc. So early and often we as humans come to understand, in the immortal words of the Jagger, you can’t always get what you want.
But, deep down, I suspected everything in life would work out fine for me. Sure, life wasn’t perfect: My friends regularly accused me of lying about stuff, usually cause I was lying about stuff, my school teachers went back and forth between encouraging my creativity and being irritated by it leaving me feeling a bit confused about whether it was ok to ignore maths and write songs instead and my Parents often had conversations about serious things behind closed doors that they thought we couldn’t hear. But generally speaking I enjoyed being alive. I imagined this would continue. I had no reason to suspect my dreams wouldn’t come true. I was excited about getting older, I was happy to be young, I believed that all the terrible things that could go wrong happened to other people. I was secure in the knowledge that, in the end, if I did my best I would continue to experience the kind of peace that comes from living in a protective bubble made up of ego, a tiny village in a farming community, wotsits, Roald Dahl books and the Spice Girls.
All these things could last forever, right? Right? Right?
So in short: I was aware at this age that things could go wrong but I believed everything pretty much always worked out in the end. There was no bumped knee so painful that it couldn’t be kissed better.
Then one day my Father suggested we sit down as a family and watch his copy of one of his favourite movies: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Based of a book by Ken Kesey and produced by the Douglas dynasty, Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of one Randle P McMurphy a guy who voluntarily enters a mental institute to avoid a prison sentence for statutory rape and starts to challenge the way things are done. This is not appreciated by the immovable Nurse Ratched who prefers to keep the service users sedate ie terrified, believing them a risk to themselves and others when too excited. Randle fights against her for the sake of the men he begrudgingly regards as friends and for the fun of the fair, and soon a battle of nerves breaks out between two evenly matched oppositions: One cold and controlling the other passionate and unbreakable.
Let’s be honest: When people are discussing notoriously disturbing films this one doesn’t come up. It is very well regarded, sure, winning many prizes, critically lauded and listed as one of the most culturally significant movies from the arguably incomparable output of 70’s cinema. It is still beloved to this day but such is its place in the cultural zeitgeist it is oft parodied, ripe for satire as it is. It also launched the careers of several young upstarts like Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif and Danny Devito. Although the author didn’t like that the film isn’t told from the perspective of Chief Bromden like in the book, Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of the most popular films ever made.
I was instantly won over, spell bound you might say by the story. Another film rated 18 or R that I was possibly too young to watch, I let the jokes I didn’t understand wash over me and got right behind McMurphy’s mission to end Ratched’s reign of terror. Despite the charges that bring him to this place in the first instance, watching him act out the World Series games, patter effortlessly and break out the gang for a day on the sea, I began to view him as a heroic figure. I remember the scene where he attempts to pick up a pluming fixture, watching him go red and sweat with the effort and embarassment…’At least I tried’ he says. Or something to that effect. My Father turned to me and repeated it. Emphasising the message. At least McMurphy is fighting back.
And then there is the other side…
Like with many other posts on my list, part of what is deeply unsettling about Ratched is she really believes her way is right. Does she get a sadistic pleasure out of controlling the inmates? I suspect she does. But you can understand why she objects to McMurphy and even if you can’t sympathise with her, part of what makes her frightening is she represents the bureaucratic bogeyman we all know-Someone with power who wields it for their own ends without any real understanding of the damage they are doing. She has no self awareness, she can justify her actions at every turn, and it is horrifying to think such vulnerable people are being harmed in this way.
The performances are fantastic across the board and director Milos Forman does a phenomenal job. It has been a long time since I have seen it but so many tiny moments are clear in my mind: Jack Nicholson’s energy when he first enters as he jumps all over the guards ‘acting crazy,’ Louise Fletcher’s devil horn hair, the faces of the inmates many of whom were real life inmates of such an institution, the scene where the Chief, played by Will Sampson, reveals he can talk when he accepts McMurphy’s offer of gum with a flat but enthusiastic: ‘Ah…juicy fruit’ I still think about it whenever I see the brand.
So is the film as good as remembered? Hard for me to say. It was made in the 70’s. I watched it in the 90’s. I have not seen it in ages. So I don’t have much to say about the politics of mental health as portrayed in the film. Going by the enduring satire of the movie, I feel like it did more harm than good in some ways, possibly creating or at the very least confirming the stereotype that people who have difficulties with their mental health often babble and shout and shake it all about. I don’t condemn the film for this but I certainly imagine that aspect dates it a bit.
Like I briefly mentioned earlier, the fact that McMurphy is a rapist was lost on me when I watched it. I assume they talk about it in the film but that wasn’t something I retained. The underlying, bubbling misogyny aimed at Ratched also might make me feel uncomfortable-Who knows? All I know is the film stayed with me on many levels and I don’t doubt it deserved the clean sweep of Oscars it got in 1976. Best of all is the very moving Best Actress speech Louise Fletcher gives where she does sign language for her parents, both of were are deaf.
I am stalling again…I know what I have to do and I don’t really want to do it.
So now I am going to take you through some of the key moments of the film, building up to my most personally disturbing moment in cinema. I will include clips and I will spoil the ending. So, for the last time, Eddie will you do the honours?
Thanks Eddie. You’re a pal.
After a fight with some orderlies, McMurphy is taken ‘upstairs’ for some electric shock therapy in a horrible scene, and when he returns he shuffles in, seemingly weakened, much to the concern of the other inmates. Then…
So McMurphy continues his psychological warfare against Ratchet but then he learns he can’t just leave whenever he wants as he is being held with no end date in sight despite the fact he initially lied to be committed. So he decides to break out but not before having an alcohol and drugs fuelled party where he arranges for his buddy Candy to take the virginity of the stuttering Billy. In the wake of the party, which was so good McMurphy forgot to escape, Ratchet confronts Billy about his behaviour and in a glorious moment he manages to speak without stammering.
Then Ratchet, fully aware of the pain she is going to inflict, softly informs Billy she will have to let his Mother know about what he did. Then all hell breaks lose:
Again, I have to stop and praise the performances. The close ups on the faces, these reaction shots, the delivery: it is sharp, so painful, so deliriously well timed. It is art. I still get shivers even now.
So tragically Billy kills himself after realising he will not be able to escape the grip Ratchet has over his phsyche and McMurhpy loses it and tries to murder Ratchet.
And now we have arrived. The final scene of the film.
As a 9, 10 year old I took it in. When the film was over I ran to the kitchen and cried my eyes out. I remember I was crying so hard I couldn’t stay standing and collapsed on the floor. I could hear the mumbles from the living room, my siblings helpfully suggesting that perhaps we should have just rented Mrs Doubtfire again. Then my Father was there.
He was very apologetic. He clearly felt bad. But he was also baffled. ‘it’s just a film darling’ he intoned with authority. But it was too late. I now knew the truth. ‘It’s not right! It’s not fair!’ I screamed into the face of my alarmed parent. My tiny distress overwhelmed me as I replayed the moment McMurphy is finally stifled by his oppressors.
I have not watched it since I was a child because of how it made me feel then. The grief and pain I experienced as a kid that I had never felt before. As I am writing this I feel the anxiety I know so well run up and down my fingers, throat, stomach, head…I feel a bit sick, my heart is twitching. But I am going to watch it. I am going to let my tears happen. I am going to finish writing this long, pointless, rambling series of short essays about the scenes in films that have lived in my brain the longest, unwelcome guests at the most miserable party of all time.
McMurhpy is back in the ward and the Chief gets out of bed to discuss the next step in their plan to escape. But this time, it is not an act. This time something really is wrong.
The film actually ends on a moment of optimism as the Chief does what McMurphy could not: He escapes. Thanks to his friend, he can be free. He believes in himself. And so he goes, soundtracked to the roar of approval from his fellow war buddies and the stirring score-
However, the damage was done for me. My little mind was racing: How could they give someone a lobotomy? How could a man like that be overpowered and conquered by the uniforms? Why couldn’t he have escaped too? Why wasn’t he allowed to survive? It wasn’t fair. I didn’t want it to be true. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
I learned that day that not everyone makes it. It sounds melodramatic I know but it is true. I mean, look at the others. They could run out too but they don’t. They need that place. Why couldn’t Billy live? Because he couldn’t cope. Not everybody has the strength to run at the unknown, counting only on themselves. The world isn’t safe. Not everyone is kind.
As a child I had honestly believed I could deal with anything-then I realised what they did to McMurphy and I understood injustice. The horror of misunderstandings, the seeming reasonableness of pure evil, the fact that the weaknesses we all have can be our undoing. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair but McMurphy would never be avenged. Even Chief’s escape into the early morning wasn’t enough to lift my spirits.
So that was then, how about now? I am a snotty mess and it is hard to breathe but I have survived to garble and explain why it disturbed me so deeply. Is the impact the same? Not quite but it deserves its rightful place at the top of my list. McMurphy’s death was one of the defining moments of my young life: Not everyone can be saved. Not everyone can save themselves. People lose. People die.
It has never really occurred to me until today the possible link between the agony of watching this film and my eventual road to working in mental health. Don’t get me wrong: I primarily do my job because I like feeling clever and not being bored. I am not striving to have a massive impact on the world. But I want to connect. Any way I can. I’m a bit human that way.
In summary, that was a dark couple of weeks. I have explored a lot of common and uncommon themes of pain and disturbance all of them personal and kind of important.
It was an interesting writing exercise, way harder than I thought. The last 5 or so kind of drained me so I won’t be jumping straight back in but I hope the fact that I was able to push past my tiredness quite a few times after work to post helps me to keep going with the blog. Only time time will tell. If you enjoyed the list please do like, share and comment. Or not. Whatever works. Thank you for stopping by anyway.
And finally I just want to sincerely say to all my kind and supportive friends who might be reading this…
Fuck you, I’m not editing it to include the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, stop asking.