One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To Move Deeply
What is the difference between a film being moving and deeply moving, beyond the general critical short-hand that allows the latter to become a ready phrase? One way of getting closer to comprehending the problem would be to look at One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the profound impact of the last few minutes, focus upon another other film of that decade, The Deer Hunter, and contrast them with three more recent examples where a character's death is moving enough but doesn't tap into a wider sense of meaning than the immediacy of the demise in relation to the hope that comes out of that loss.
Let's take a recent instance of the moving - the death of Coco Chanel's lover in Coco Before Chanel. Here is someone who falls in love with an English industrialist, and whose loss so affects her that we later find out that she never married, and seemed to devote herself exclusively to her work. Yet though the director Anne Fontaine registers the death with a degree of subtlety as Coco's tearful sister intimates the news, and we later see Coco looking at the car which killed her lover, Arthur, bent around a tree, the film offers only second principle loss. It cannot quite go beyond the significance it has on Coco, no matter if the man in her life clearly possesses a transformational influence. Earlier in the film he tosses Coco a copy of Proudhon, and convinces her that she has immense value no matter her lack of monetary wealth at this stage in her life.
Is it merely sad rather than tragic because the film offers Arthur's death as an emancipatory device; so that Arthur managed while alive to free her from the slavery of believing her place was at the bottom, allowing her to become anything she wanted to become, while his death, however devastating, frees her from his tempered love? Arthur may have loved her but he married someone else, another woman who could contribute to his expanding empire, no matter if Coco would remain his lover. At one moment someone says Arthur wants to become the richest man in England; it is of course ironic that Arthur died an early death on his way to his fortune; Coco lived a long life and clearly made hers. It is one of many moving deaths in cinema that seems to possess a counter-optimism that dilutes the despair. Coco loses a lover but gains an empire; just as in other recent examples of the merely moving Saving Private Ryan loses his captain but gains maturity, and in Braveheart William Wallace dies but Scotland gains a martyr. The loss in each instance is more than matched by a compensating plenitude. Whatever the difference in aesthetic treatment, with Saving Private Ryan leaning towards the sentimental, Braveheart the triumphal, and Coco Before Chanel to the restrained, these are works where hope finally overcomes despair. The death is second principle not least because the life force is the first principle. Whether it is Coco and her subsequent fame in Fontaine's film, Ryan and patriotism in Spielberg's or Wallace's son and Scotland's freedom in Braveheart, we notice what counts is that the life is stronger than the death.
Yet isn't this emancipatory life force exactly what One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest offers as Chief Bromden escapes after suffocating Jack Nicholson's McMurphy to death, aware that it would surely be Randall's wish that he be dead rather than lobotomised, and is it not freedom that the inmates are acknowledging when they smile and holler as they hear the window being broken and someone escaping? However while the Indian's escape is if you like uplifting, it still seems weighed down by McMurphy's death as the demise takes place within the same breath of the film as the Chief's break-out. This is the last gasp of freedom, more than a triumphal escape, and the lack of air in the gesture can be illustrated by the airier moment not long before when it looks like McMurphy and the Chief will escape in the full light of day, rather than the chief in the desperate dawn light. As McMurphy and the Chief prepare to escape after an all night party with the other inmates and a couple of girls McMurphy's sneaks in, so we would have a scene of albeit superficial triumphalism as McMurphy leaves the Oregan institution and escapes to Canada with the no longer mute chief. This would be liberation all round, and with the full oxygen of a happy ending. Now in Coco Before Chanel, Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart, the amount of air left in each film is still enough for the positive to outweigh the negative. At the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the air breathed resembles that of a man who manages to crawl out of a coffin after being buried alive whilst knowing his entire family has already died from asphyxiation in coffins elsewhere. The breath is that of survival; not living. In Saving Private Ryan this is obviously the opposite. In so many different ways Spielberg removes the sense of despair as the sergeant dies but the private very much lives. The captain's dying words are 'earn it', as he wants Ryan to make good on the sacrifices others have made to save Ryan's life - after all, the point of the sergeant's mission was to return Ryan to his mum when his other brothers had already been lost in combat. During the scene we also have John Williams' typically rousing music insisting that this will not be a life lost in vain, and then we have a dissolve from the young Ryan's face in low angle to his older self, now visiting with his family the Normandy grave of his captain. Clearly he has made something of his life, and created a few others. It is of course a myth that mainstream Hollywood doesn't kill off leading characters, but what it usually does is create compensatory pleasures to counter the potential despair. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, made at a time when Hollywood was at its most adventurous, leaves the compensation meagre next to the loss. It may incorporate cut away footage of the inmates as the Indian escapes, but these are hardly triumphant reaction shots. The inmates will have assumed it wasn't only the Indian who has escaped, but surely R. P. as well since they are unaware of what has happened to him. They will soon presumably realise otherwise.
This is not to praise despair, but to try and understand a reality principle that says any despair is countered not by optimism, but by realism. These are moot terms we are using here, but can be surely be grounded. Optimism without realism is a little like calories without nutrients: a momentary staving that leads to a sharper need. Its optimism can result in one asking more questions than it answers even if it's presented itself as a closed book. Saving Private Ryan is book-ended by the appearance of Ryan at his captain's graveside, and then flashes back to explore how his life happened to be saved. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is also book-ended, with McMuphy arriving early one morning to the mental facility, and ends with the Chief leaving it also at dawn. But where Spielberg's film wants to close off the world and shows that authorities care by returning to Mrs Ryan her last living son, Milos Forman's is interested in showing that authorities are basically indifferent to the individual and to assume otherwise is an act of false consciousness. This isn't especially to say that Spielberg is wrong and Forman right; more to say that Forman offers Cuckoo's Nest as a provocation as Spielberg offers Saving Private Ryan as a patriotic invocation. When Ryan asks his wife whether he has been a good man; he is basically wondering whether he's lived a worthwhile life. As we have nothing to go on but a family lurking in the background, and as his wife insists he has been, we must assume that central to that worthy life has been God, Family and the American way. These are the three categorical elements in the scene: the family that insisted on coming with him to the graveside, the cross that stands as the sergeant's burial stone, and the American flag that provides the final shot, accompanied by bugle music.
In contrast Cuckoo's Nest adopts snare music that hints at a Native American Indian sound, an Indian escaping from an institution, and a corpse who if he could speak would neither be telling the Chief to earn his freedom, nor be musing over whether he has led a good life and been a good man. What Forman's film offers is no more than a perspective on American life, and perhaps a jaundiced one, but it searches out its small turf of truth, and it would probably take a Spielbergian, encompassing belief in America to have problems with it.
It is this encompassing belief Stanley Kauffmann offers when saying in a New Republicreview that "mental patients are socially incompetent...", that McMurphy's been arrested a number of times in the past, and that "he is - literally - an egomaniac. There is I think same ethical danger in glorifying him." We may wonder though whether there is rather more ethical danger in glorifying a nation (as in Saving Private Ryan) over a random individual, and whether Kauffmann is right to talk of glorification at all in the context of McMurphy. Let us think again of the closing moments, and the cutaways to the inmates glad that someone has broken out. They will be under the assumption that it has been McMurphy who has escaped, whether with the Indian or not, for it has been McMurphy who has liberated them in tiny ways from their own fears throughout the film. We know otherwise, of course, just as we know, unlike the inmates, that the Chief can talk, and has the agency to make his own escape. Any glorification contains a stronger sense of muted irony: the inmates will surely realise that McMurphy is dead. The Indian's escape is necessary, but not a glorification; and the character apparently worthy of that glorification is no longer alive and his death rather ignominious. This isn't Wallace yelling for freedom as he's slaughtered, and it isn't the captain rasping through gritted teeth that Ryan 'earn it'. Here a lobotomized McMurphy can do no more than gurgle, and so any triumph or glory passes through a complex register of subdued feeling. There is McMurphy's pathetic death, the inmates' misguided optimism, and Chief's desperate actions: escape after killing the only man with whom he seemed capable of communicating. Loss is stronger than gain here, where in Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, and to a lesser degree Coco Before Chanel, gain is stronger than loss. We are moved, but not deeply moved.
Numerous critics would talk of the unhappy endings that ran through many seventies films, but it is maybe more appropriate to say that many of the films moved us deeply rather than superficially. There have been numerous works of the last fifteen years that end on ostensible pessimism: not only Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, but alsoTitanic and American Beauty - all Oscar winners, just as The French Connection, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and The Deer Hunter were before them. Yet where the more recent films seem to want to wrest from any despair life-affirmation, the seventies films appeared to call affirmation into question. To life affirm is often at the same time to affirm the values that life is affirming and many of the great works of the seventies wanted to strip bare affirmation to see if anything can be salvaged from life. To move profoundly is also to enquire deeply, and hence the accessing of a first principle, where Saving Private Ryan affirms good ol' American values, and thus goes no further into the essence of man than for the purposes of patriotism, Cuckoo's Nest asks questions about the human spirit and the nature of consciousness, and part of the film's heft comes when we realize there isn't much of the human being left when the two are removed. The Chief takes out a man who is but a nervous system: we watch McMurphy trying to stay alive when there is no more than survival instinct left. This is an organism not a human, and while some may still feel distraught at the Chief's action; the horror has taken place off screen - we don't see McMurphy's final electro-shock that turns him into a vegetable.
Like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Deer Hunter also removes the essence of a life before the death of the body, with Christopher Walken's character Nick getting hooked on heroin and living a zombified existence playing Russian Roulette in Vietnam as his best buddy Mike (Robert De Niro) tries to bring him back from the living dead in a game that will leave Mike no less despairing than Chief just before the end of Cuckoo's Nest. Clearly Nick has been out of it for far longer than McMurphy, and still basically functional for all his loss of identity, but both films seem to dig deep into Primo Levi's question of If this is a Man, as though trying to tackle emotionally essential questions that can only be answered in such a manner that the affirmative gives way to the pessimistic, and cannot thus be redeemed by affirmation at the conclusion. This is especially interesting if we compare the ending of Michael Cimino's film with Spielberg's. Here Cimino concludes with patriotic ambivalence as the remaining friends gather together back in the States and sing God Bless America. Maybe the sentiment is being sincerely expressed, both on the characters' part and on Cimino's, but it is as though ambivalence is inevitable given the despair of the death that we have shortly before witnessed. We cannot say that Nick's death is the equivalent of the the captain's in Saving Private Ryan. One has been concretely sacrificial; the other strangely self-destructive. When we see the American flag at the end of Saving Private Ryan Spielberg makes clear the captain has died meaningfully, sanely and rationally and the American flag functions as an unambiguous sign of heroism. In The Deer Hunter, as the characters sing of the home that we know, we may wonder about the home they don't know. Several of the characters singing haven't been to Vietnam, and those that have, like Mike and another friend, know what the opposite of home is. Now of course numerous people had problems not only with the film's ending, but more especially with the presentation of Vietnam in the film. But one may wonder whether a more balanced approach would have diluted the emotional affect. Where Spielberg's film is equally jaundiced as it winnows the conflict down to Americans fighting Germans, thus leaving the British basically out of the equation, Cimino presents the Vietnamese as an undifferentiated mass. These are very different sins of omission, however, and rather than musing over which is the more reprehensible (surely The Deer Hunter's racism), nevertheless the patriotism in Cimino's film is infinitely subtler and consequently much deeper. Where Spielberg's movie unequivocally ends on the image of the American flag, The Deer Hunter ends on the ambiguity of the national anthem. There is a sense of great ambivalence in this scene as various characters sing the anthem with a very different awareness of what it means. All are obviously grieving Nick's death, but only Mike was there to witness it in Vietnam, and only Mike and John Savage's character have been there at all. Are some characters singing complacently, other reluctantly, still others aware of the importance of home? There is a paradoxical capacity in The Deer Hunter to achieve great depth of feeling within ambivalence; Spielberg arrives at shallow feeling through unambiguousness.
Here we can return to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and we may note a certain irony that though many of the more recent films we have talked about would seem to have a stronger narrative focus, Forman's film has a richer thematic texture. Here we can usefully recall Forman's education at FAMU, the Czech film school, and some comment he made about it. In The Film Director as Superstar he says that at the school he actually spent the four years studying film writing, where one of his teachers was Milan Kundera. Now in The Art of the Novel Kundera writes interestingly about the difference between story and theme, saying "whenever a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story, it goes flat." Perhaps many of the more recent films we've invoked lack a theme and have more of a message, and that the story pushes through the categorical sentiment through the categorical furthering of the story. Elsewhere in Kundera's book he mentions his problem with kitsch and with the notion of a message. Commenting on kitsch he says he never minded Agatha Christie, "whereas Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz at the piano, the big Hollywood films like Kramer versus Kramer, Doctor Zhivago (poor Pasternak!) - those I detest, deeply sincerely." At another moment in the book he says he was quite happy when a Scandinavian publisher wondered whether to publish his novel The Farewell Party because they perceived it be anti-abortionist. Kundera said he was obviously pro-abortion, but was happy with the misunderstanding. "I had succeeded as a novelist. I succeeded in maintaining the moral ambiguity of the situation."
We should remember of course that Kramer versus Kramer was a late seventies film, but we should also recall that in turning the role down that fine seventies actor James Caan referred to it somewhere as bourgeois bullshit, as if recognizing in his own way what Kundera was recognizing in his. The film lacked a moral ambiguity of situation, and we might suppose that its final message isn't too dissimilar to Spielberg's in Saving Private Ryan: have I become a good man, as Dustin Hoffman moves from selfish advertising automaton to someone who can be there for his son. The kitsch resides in what Kundera would call the film's message, taking into account both his comments on kitsch and the categorical meaning the Scandinavians found in Kundera's work that was exactly antithetical to his own beliefs on the subject. Indeed Kundera in admiring the basic craftsmanship of an Agatha Christie over the message mongering would here seem to be echoing Pauline Kael's observations on Spielberg in an interview she gave in Cineaste. "He's gone to the pulpit. He had such flair in Jaws, and his early movies. He seemed so sophisticated and intelligent - so sharp about what he was doing...But now there's a real simpleton's morality that he hands to the audience." Elsewhere, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera talks of kitsch possessing "that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied as everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch." If many of the more recent films (and poor Kramer versus Kramer) are examples of kitsch it seems to reside in an area of categorical denial, a sense that life affirmation is always stronger than the realities of death. For all Spielberg's authenticity in the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan, he is willing by the end of the film to deny the real and arrive at what we could call the therapeutically mythical. This is where a death proves utterly insignificant next to the life-giving opportunities it seems to create.
One of the reasons why Cuckoo's Nest and a number of other films of the period are deemed so pessimistic, is because they don't offer this therapeutic mythology, and this is why we disagree with Kauffmann's assumption that McMurphy is glorified. In our reckoning, glorification ought to create a stronger feeling of hope than despair, and we believe that the endings of Cuckoo's Nest, and also indeed The Deer Hunter, are so haunted by their deaths that any Phoenix-triumphalism cannot rise out of the ashes of the dead. We still have the smell of dead flesh in our nostrils.
However, initially we proposed that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest achieved a first principle lacking in Saving Private Ryan and the others. But this doesn't mean we're claiming the first principle lies in aesthetic hope over aesthetic despair; it's more that the pursuit of hope within an ostensibly bleak narrative can somehow block the underlying thematic exploration, taking into account Kundera's comments above. One senses that any despair can only go so far because otherwise the opportunity for hope at the film's conclusion would be potentially too diluted. Interestingly while generally admiring Spielberg's film, David Thomson in Have You Seen...? wishes, for example, that when we find out about the captain's domestic existence, "I would have liked him to be a mess in real life, but a man who has found himself in war." But Spielberg wants the captain as a character making the maximum sacrifice so that Ryan will then go on to live the best possible life. If the captain was an unhappy man finding himself in war, then his line about Ryan earning it wouldn't have quite the same resonance: he would only have sacrificed his own life, when indeed he has sacrificed his family as well. A more complex filmmaker than Spielberg would have realized that potentially there is greater despair than hope even in the back story he has chosen to given to the captain. Mrs Ryan may be getting one of her sons back, but she is an aging woman and her children were grown up; Captain Miller will be leaving family that actually exists. A more nuanced filmmaker would have risked the pessimism, but Spielberg is someone who thinks through character not to their depths, but to the limits of their narrative function. Hence, Spielberg wants us to know that Miller has been a good man, just as Ryan must become a good one also. He functions as a role model, and so the sort of character complexities Thomson asks for must be eschewed because of his functional role within the story, as Spielberg presumes he has created a character one-dimensional enough to serve his purpose, and not risked creating a three-dimensional one who could call his through-lines into question.
Yet it is partly this one-dimensionality that while allowing for narrative development, counters the sort of narrative texture that can create the deeply moving. To be deeply moved is perhaps to arrive at the deeply meaningful, and one suspects Spielberg so manipulates us at the end of Saving Private Ryan because he hasn't created enough space for the deeply meaningful without internal contradictions that would counter that meaningfulness. Taking into account Thomson's comments, Spielberg creates in Captain Miller a good family man for the purposes of the role model he has to signify, then keeps that family as vague as possible so that we're in no danger of feeling his loss is more important than Ryan's life. And in case there is any such danger, Spielberg makes sure the last five minutes of his film play on the noble sacrifice of Miller, and the good, patriotic life Ryan has gone on to lead. What he doesn't want it seems is the very understandable ambivalence that would say while an aging mother loses all her children; a younger mother loses her husband. If Spielberg had reversed the emphasis, and contained a higher degree of ambivalence in that reversal, he may have allowed us to feel deeply moved, but instead the triumphal and the one-dimensional prove stronger than the three-dimensional and the desolate.
Finally, then, our tentative exploration proposes that there must be a three-dimensional loss that means the triumphal cannot overcome the despairing. This doesn't at all mean the character that dies must be more nuanced and established than the characters who survive. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest this is clearly the case; but not in The Deer Hunter's. Most important of all is that what is absent must exist in their absence not as sublimation or transformation, but as an absent presence. When at the end of Cuckoo's Nest the Chief runs away from the institute, we must sense McMurphy's absence next to him. At the conclusion of The Deer Hunter, as the characters eat and sing God Bless America, we must feel that there is an empty space where Nick ought to be. If the filmmaker fills this absence with either a stronger presence, or fails to suggest it because the character was too insubstantially presented in the first place, then all the film has managed to do is move us but not deeply move us...
© Tony McKibbin