Friday, November 26, 2010

Re-watching, Re-seeing.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest appealed to me, when I first watched it in my young twenties, as a parable of independence, and that's clearly how the film is intended.

And the young mind is inclined to see it that way, because young people who happen to be good readers  search reflexively (in my experience) for the message or moral or wisdom or advice -- the part of the story that can be pulled out and applied to their own lives. This may be related to young people's tendency to see everything as being "all about" them, but it's also pretty reasonable: if you're in the phase of your life when you're trying to figure out your life, then you are naturally going to look for "messages" about how to live. Heaven help you if you don't.

Seen this way, Jack Nicholson's McMurphy is a sympathetic everyman who just wants to be free and have a good time; he is a clear-sighted rebel and the vehicle of redemption for a collection of people so damaged by society that their only "place" in the world is to dodder their days away bickering in a mental hospital. In this reading the fish is manhood, the fountain cages the eternal wild spirit of man, the crone (Nurse Ratched) is the corrupt enforcer of a corrupt society, and every damaged man who lives on the ward has ended up here because of the likes of her: wicked judgmental mothers and soul-sapping wives. Even McMurphy is on the ward because of a girl: arrested for statutory rape, which he describes as an injustice because the girl was "15 going on 30." The only man on the ward free of feminine influences is the Indian, "Chief," who only speaks of a father, and who, by playing deaf and dumb, manages to escape the institutional clutches; his escape at the end, when he hurls the fountain through the windows and walks away, represents the irrepressible spirit of McMurphy, who, even though he is dead, "lives on" in the figure of an enormous man who goes on in silent refusal despite the destruction of his people, etc.

It's a good reading of the story, and the camera angles support it, especially the villainous view of Ratched: the way the director steadied on her face as she froze her eyes, the way the pivotal conversation among the doctors was shown with extreme close-ups on their faces so that the camera could, suddenly, land on her (cue horror movie music) to show that she, the wicked one, has even infiltrated here, among the doctors who control the men's fate.

There is also another less general symbolic reading: not just of people subjugated by society, but of men subjugated by women, or of "manly" men subjugated by a feminized society ruled by girly-men and the wicked women who have corrupted them. In this reading we see worthy manhood crippled, criminalized, and ultimately medicalized by unworthy women and feminized men. In this reading, only a couple of the men in the ward are worthy: the violent ones, the frustrated ones. Nicholson's character is worthy, and so is Christopher Lloyd's because he's always trying to scrap up a fight, and he takes Nicholson's bets, and so on. The rest are lost souls who might be "saved" by McMurphy, if he gets the chance, by letting them be "bad boys": if they can just steal a boat and go fishing, if they can just get the shy virgin boy laid, they too can find their manhood and be free.

Although getting laid also seems to be a big part of the fishing boat scene, so maybe in this version you only need to fuck a woman (or be present while one gets fucked) and you'll "be a man."

I would add that there seems to be a racial element in this as well: the three orderlies and the night ward caretaker are the only black faces in the story, and they too are portrayed as unworthy and corrupt, just like the women nurses. The women McMurphy is friends with are exclusively sex objects. They lie down and take it, even when McMurphy tells them to take it from a perfect stranger, or a mental patient she's only even seen once before. Everyone with a soul to save in this story is a white man. The acceptable "other" is the cute girl who submits to the man's will. And the "other" that doesn't, the women nurses and black orderlies who presume to tell a white man what to do, they are "evil."

I'm not at all fond of this second, less general reading, for obvious reasons.

As I've gotten older, I tend to see things not just in terms of their symbolic content, but as human dramas. I search for complexity in a way that I didn't when I was a twenty-some. I tend to think more about who they are, how they got here, where they're going, what their motivations are, what they are forced to do and what they choose to do.

And so upon re-watching, I still saw the first symbolic narrative, and I still saw the second, but I also saw my mind going places it did not when I was a kid searching for something to apply to my life.

Probably the most shocking turn is that I have suddenly found myself very sympathetic to Nurse Ratched. Don't get me wrong: when she viciously shames Billy at the end, when she uses what she knows about his psychology to knock him down, that is a terrible thing. But it is the first and only terrible thing she does, and she does it when she comes into work in the morning and discovers that everything has been torn apart, and the people who tore it apart are giggling and proud of themselves. She's wrong to say what she says, but the pressures that pushed her over that line are clear and understandable. She is, after all, only human.

And that's the key for me: she's human. She's a woman with a career in the mid-20th Century, in charge of a ward of 20 emotionally disturbed but still by-culture "entitled" white men, some of whom are violent, all but one of whom are larger than her. When a man shows up whose only wish is to "put a bug up her ass," who wants only to undermine her authority in her place of work, she has to, as part of her job, try to maintain not just order, but her authority. The film is put together in such a way that we are prodded to reject that she should even have authority, but what is the basis for that, beyond her sex? Her icy unblinking stare looks more to me like courage in the face of challenge than "evil." Yet in our culture, the character's name and face has become synonymous with evil. Imagine if this story had put a male "Doctor Ratched" in charge of the ward. Would he be evil, or the just authority? The question's worth asking.

And also, now that I'm looking at the film with a more mature eye, I see that these characters (of course!) cannot be quick-fixed by some feisty manly-man who takes 'em fishin and gets 'em laid like some absentee father that returns for the world's least appropriate 16th birthday. The story wants us to think he can: when Billy's stutter disappears (upon fucking a woman) and then reappears (upon being shamed by a woman), we are meant to see a real transformation tragically reversed by the evil Nurse. But the boy immediately runs into the next room and tries to kill himself. Young as he is, he has a lifetime of experiences (and suicide attempts) that led him to commit himself to an institution. If getting laid cures your stutter, but a few shaming words makes you try to end your life, you have not been cured of anything: you are too fragile for life, and you probably need to be where you are, or where you were, before McMurphy came along: a safe, quiet, predictable, unchallenging mental hospital.

The meanings of stories change over time. A story that starts out as a warning against loving someone your parents don't approve of turns into a celebration of that same star-crossed love. And a story that starts out defending the manly-manhood of real men whose society interferes with their righteous aggression and woman-subjugating tendencies turns into a study of a time period: a time when a woman's authority in the workplace would be tenuous and routinely challenged, when even mentally damaged white men could still brandish with pride the entitlements of white manhood, when it was perfectly acceptable to let an Indian represent the better part of a white man's soul, or let an educated, working woman trying to do her job represent pure "evil."

It is still and will always be a brilliant, brilliant movie, but the way we see it and re-see it will continue to change.

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