Cinema: Aborted Flight

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Published in 1962, Ken Kesey's novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of the chief literary contributions to the prevailing cultural mood of the '60s. But unlike so many popular artistic and intellectual productions of that era, the book may have the capacity to outlive its historical moment. In telling the story of Randle McMurphy and the brief, abortive rebellion which he organized in an insane asylum, Kesey demonstrated a tough-minded understanding of the subtleties of revolutionaries and revolutions.

Sexless Nag. McMurphy is an ambiguous character whose motives are never quite clear. Like revolutionaries who operate on a larger political stage, McMurphy may be acting out of idealism or he may have found a socially acceptable cover for profound psychopathy−or both. Kesey also understood that a belief in the possibility of rebellion is essential to modern man, a fallback position that can be taken up when despair threatens to turn into self-destruction. It is to restore that faint possibility for his fellow inmates that McMurphy ultimately acts without understanding what he is doing. The revolt he leads can only put him under the lobotomizer's knife. Instead, to keep hope alive, his friend, an Indian named Chief Bromden, kills him: if McMurphy is a martyr, his deeds become the stuff of life-sustaining mythology for his wardmates.

The movie version of Cuckoo 's Nest is faithful to the external events of the novel−no complaints there. The tro ble is that it betrays no awareness that the events are subject to multiple interpretations. Jack Nicholson plays Mc Murphy as an unambiguously charming figure, a victim of high spirits, perhaps, but without a dark side or even any gray shadings. He is a fine fellow to spend a couple of hours with, but he has no depth or resonance, and his fate leaves us curiously untouched. Similarly, the zany behavior of his fellows is amusing, but the depth of their need for McMurphy is not even suggested. Finally, there is the problem of Big Nurse, the chief authority symbol in McMurphy's little world and his main antagonist. In the book, a good deal of the tension between them is oddly sexual. In the film, Big Nurse (Louise Fletcher) is merely a prim, quite sexless nag and a symbol only of niggling institutionalism. So nothing of any dramatic power gets going between her and McMurphy.

The fault for this lies in a script that would rather ingratiate than abrade, in direction that is content to realize, in documentary fashion, the ugly surfaces of asylum life. One Flew over the Cuckoo 's Nest is an earnest attempt to make a serious film. But in the end the movie backs away from both the human reality and the cloudy but potent symbolism that Ken Kesey found in the asylum.