Thursday, February 19, 2015

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - INCLUDES SPOILERS

This movie is about a repeat offender named McMuphy (Nicholson) who is sent to prison for statutory rape.  He convinces the prison guards the he is insane so that he will be transferred to a mental institution and be able to get out of prison labor.  He assumes, wrongly, that that the institution will be the lap of luxury compared to prison.  However, the institution is run by the notorious Nurse Ratched who as broken the spirits of all of the patients and forced them into submission through humiliation and fear of lobotomies.  The rest of the movie is about their battle for control of the ward.

We're introduced to the key players in the movie over a game of cards, which is one of the main ways everyone passes their time.  Dourif is very nervous and stutters uncontrollably, Cheswick becomes enraged easily and often throws tantrums, Harding is neurotic and well-educated, Taber can be obnoxious and is crude, and the Chief is an enormous Native American who is believed to be deaf and mute.  As the movie progresses McMurphy, Dourif, and the Chief become close.  We learn through there relationships that many of the patients are there voluntarily and that each has adopted a role or greater degree of "insanity" in order to cope and exist on the ward with some semblance of peace.

What is interesting about this film is how these "disabled" patients exhibit ableism.  McMurphy, because of his "ability" and claimed greater degree of "sanity" assumes a leadership position of the patients.  He assumes because of his abilities that he can assume that position.  He continues to make these assumptions throughout the film.   He uses the Chief to gain an advantage in basketball, but assumes that he is not good for anything else as he is supposedly deaf and mute.  This is the basis of his relationship with Dourif as he seeks to impart wisdom.

The penultimate example of ableism, however, is when the Chief kills McMurphy at the end of the movie after he has been lobotomized.  McMurphy was made into a "vegetable" and the Chief didn't want to leave him like that.  The Chief who pretended to be deaf and mute for most of his time on the ward -  an able individual passing as disabled - considered McMurphy's life as no longer worth living.  His ability afforded him the right to make that decision and to implement his perspective.  Playing devil's advocate, McMurphy very well may not have wanted to "live like that" but that decision would have been made while he was situated in his ableist privilege.  As a "vegetable" McMurphy could have said he wanted to live or die, but that opinion, if able to be communicated, would have had no value as it came from disabled mind.  The whole scene reaffirms that if you don't have a certain level of cognition or intellectual ability your thoughts and desires are irrelevant because you're not capable of having thoughts or desires with any degree of merit.

1 comment:

  1. I think it is interesting that Chief, in order for his act of "mercy-killing" McMurphy to be accepted or taken seriously, needed to be revealed as "not really disabled". This allows the audience to feel that Chief, while different, is really much more like able-bodied people than anyone initially thought, because he is not really deaf. If Chief is secretly able-bodied then that lends more legitimacy to his actions in the mind of the able-bodied viewer. They can then realize that Chief is much more "human" than he originally seemed, intelligent and capable of the type of empathy and compassion that would resonate with an able-bodied viewer. In this case, that empathy is putting the lobotomized McMurphy out of his misery, which as a broader argument, is something that able-bodied people often love to have feelings about when it comes to disability. Putting disabled people out of their misery, as evidenced also in "Million Dollar Baby", makes many able-bodied people feel all kinds of emotions and feelings that a tear-jerker movie would like them to feel. Such as, "This is so sad and complex but that poor disabled person really had no quality of life, and it is often the hard choice such as killing them that we able-bodied people must make, which really makes us heroes". This kind of feeling and thought is not going to be produced if the person doing the mercy killing is also disabled. Then it becomes, "Well, that disabled person is clearly not fully capable of making these kinds of decisions, but maybe because they are disabled they can understand how horrible it is. So yeah, I can get behind that, but this doesn't make me feel good about myself."

    But since Chief is magically revealed to be much more able-bodied than anyone ever thought, his killing of McMurphy is something that will make an able-bodied audience feel much better about supporting his decision. Then Chief smashes the window and runs into the woods of Oregon (this movie was filmed there and everyone in Eugene, where I am from, worships Ken Kesey and this book was required reading when I went to school there), going "back to nature", as it were, which also gives the viewer the idea that disability is perhaps unnatural, too, and also, Native Americans belong in the woods. Sorry, I am stretching and getting tongue in cheek here, but able-bodied white dudes like Kesey need to stop being hero-worshipped and this book/movie needs to be examined more in depth.