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The Methods of Madness: Representations of Inmates, Authorities and the Asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Awakenings [Page 2]


    This paper focuses on the concepts and representations of the institution and the inmate, and how films, even when presenting in a seemingly sympathetic tone, have often served only to further stigmatize both entities.


. . . continued from page 1 . . .

Both the opening and closing scenes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest use naturalistic settings to contrast with the sterile, hindering nature of the institution. The audience is presented with open spaces-fields and mountains that have nothing to do with restriction and everything to do with freedom. The opening scene is unmarred by signs of a human, industrialized world until a pair of car headlights cut through the landscape. The next shot shows Jack Nicholson's character arriving at the asylum, being escorted up the stairs by two law enforcement officers. The end of the film depicts the Chief's figurative and literal release from the asylum. This is emphasized visually by the exaggerated space around him as he runs off into the night. He is finally free from confinement and his own demons and returns to nature and the land. The Chief forcibly breaks out of the suffocating and damaging environment of the institution.

Awakenings follow in a similar suit in terms of physical representation of the institutional hospital. Images of chain link-blocked doorways and windows and cage-like interiors abound in the film. This sense of confinement is further emphasized and conveyed by the characters' resistance against it. There are several scenes in which Dr. Sayer literally tears open the window in what seems like a frantic attempt to just breathe and escape the overpowering feeling of restriction, if only for a moment. Leonard, as a patient, is significantly more confined and this is made clear as his desire for freedom increases and the establishment only tightens its grip on his mobility. Leonard's simple request to go on a walk unsupervised escalates into the film's largest battle sequence.

There are other typical asylum elements in the two films including the communal sleeping quarters, the problematic group therapy sessions and the fixed existence and non-reality of the 'day room,' the element of enclosed space being highlighted. The majority of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest takes place in the 'Day Room' of the hospital. The setting is generally static and adds to the feeling of confinement (Seger 39). The space of the mental institution is characterized by,
    high fences, window-locked screens outside every room, stark locked wards, large sleeping rooms devoid of privacy and limited activity areas. The camera's eye focuses on repeated lineups of patients for medication, therapeutic community sessions, strong aides restraining patients and electric-shock treatment. (Safer 138)
There is an obsession with routines, an almost rabid desire for adherence to some unspoken order, control and confinement. Medicine time, music time, recreation time-each is strictly segmented and designated, and deviation from this structure seems sure to be the end of everything.

In this space of strict control, order and regulation, archetypal figures begin to emerge. Most prominent in Forman's film is the rebellious and over-sexed alpha male McMurphy, played with rabid enthusiasm by Jack Nicholson and the unfeeling and diabolical medical worker Mildred Ratched, played convincingly by Louise Fletcher. In Marshall's film, the audience is presented with the other end of the spectrum with the good doctor, Robin Williams and the docile and childlike patient, Robert DeNiro. In any case, these characters are all removed to some extent from the outside world by way of the isolationist character of the asylum. The institution operates as an exclusionary bubble, keeping out the widely accepted version of a healthy social reality.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest offers a very dated representation of the mental institution. Despite fine performances by the actors, the film seems to function mainly as a pop-style referent for later films, the primary source for mildly clever inside jokes rather than standing on its own as a model of the system. Forman's film, now, appears cliched at best, but perhaps this is because it came first and its subsequent imitations vulgarize and degrade the novelty of the original. Nurse Ratched has become an iconic figure, as instantly recognizable in parody as the character of McMurphy. She is the dangerously frigid medical professional and he, the rebellious alpha male everyman. "McMurphy is as uncontrolled as the Big Nurse is controlled" (Safer 133). Nurse Ratched is as insidious and sterile as McMurphy is overtly sexual and tempestuous.

McMurphy is an interesting character as the audience identifies with him as a man
    from the 'real world' entering the space of 'the looney bin;' he functions as a credible guide for us as some level (Sodowsky and Sodowsky 36). His credibility in actuality is questionable as an individual who is a petty criminal escaping a prison work detail by doing time in a mental hospital, a statutory 'rapist' and is self-described as someone who "fights and fucks too much." McMurphy's presumed position as a mentally healthy or sane person has a certain degree of irony to it for it may be possible to postulate that, in fact, he displays evidence of being, "a psychopathic deviate resenting societal demands and authority figures. Though charming and confident, he cannot function outside, so he is thrown in jail. He cannot function there and is moved to a mental hospital, where, within the terms of that social organization, he cannot function either" (Ibid. 37).
Despite his inability to function, McMurphy is presented "as consistently aware and in control-never the buffoon, even while laughing" (McCreadle 125). This all changes of course, with his lobotomy, but for the majority of the film, McMurphy 'wears the pants.' He exercises a fair amount of power as he wages a battle, albeit ultimately futile, against the tyranny of Nurse Ratched (Seger 81). "McMurphy makes decisions and actions that allow the story to happen. If he weren't there, the patients would continue playing cards, going to therapy meetings and taking their medication-thus, no story" (Ibid.). "As Jack Nicholson plays him, McMurphy is no longer the Laingian Paul Bunyan of the ward, but he's still the charismatic misfit guerrilla" (Pauline Kael 53). McMurphy is the self-elected voice of dissent for the other inmates, but he is not even one of them. He is just another voice to speak for them, but for his own amusement. I will not argue that McMurphy lacks genuine affection for the majority of his ward-mates, yet he essentially makes pawns of them to suit his own needs, desires and ends. His manipulation of the inmates, while freeing for them at some level, is self-serving.

Conversely, in Awakenings, the patient protagonist, Leonard, is initially reluctant, a relative polar opposite to McMurphy. However, as Leonard becomes a sexualized being, his rebellious and delinquent tendencies begin to materialize. His burgeoning relationship with Mary Louise Parker's character, Paula, coincides with his increasing hostility towards his confinement, the institution and authority. As an 'awakened' sexual being, Leonard's quiet and docile nature is transformed and he becomes a revolutionary in the spirit of McMurphy. Granted, Leonard's frustration and subsequent anger are understandable, yet it is significant to note that the origins of these changes link back to his sexual realization. Leonard, in the beginning, can be viewed as a foil to McMurphy-the innocent contrasted with the sexual predator-yet, in time, he begins to appear rather like his little, somewhat slower brother.

Representations of the other patients in both films are reduced to stereotypes. In Awakenings, Dr. Sayer is clearly overwhelmed by his new charges that are presented as excitable, aggressive and screaming. Playing on the comic figure stereotype, the audience encounters Juanita, who is terrified of pens. She appears calm and amiable all of the time, except upon seeing a pen, which prompts bouts of hysterical mania. Even the catatonic patients, once their medicine kicks in, begin to embody the typical characterizations. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, viewers meet similar individuals. In both films, there is the weird old guy who dances around the rec. room by himself, the shy guy who experiences some kind of sexual awakening and the quiet, loner type. Comedy is employed at the expense of the patients, their often glazed and dazed expressions drawing awkward peals of laughter from the audience. Despite these similarities, the films' representations of the asylum staff could not be more divergent.

In the case of Nurse Ratched and her counterparts and Dr. Sayer and his nursing staff, the two groups stand in stark opposition. Nurse Ratched is professional and by-the-book to a fault. She is so blinded by her sense of the doing the 'right' thing that she loses all ability to see the appropriateness of doing the 'human' thing. Her unflinching stubbornness in adherence to the edicts and routines of the establishment make her a formidable and dangerous individual, ultimately incapable of mercy or compassion. Forman says of her character, "Nurse Ratched believes deeply that she is doing right and that's where the real drama begins for me. That's much more frightening than if you have an evil person who knows he's doing wrong" (McCreadle 130). She manages,
    to be monstrous but not a monster, hateful but not grotesque, the very model of the good citizen doing the job, disastrously… [She is] blind to her own anger and love of power, squelching her patient's manhood with the blandest of smiles. (Safer. 138)
She is represented in the extreme as a demonic castrator.


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