Thursday, October 13, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman)


Even though I have watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" way back (I think I was in 4th year high school or something), seeing it for the second time after reading the Ken Kesey-written novel from which the film was based is like seeing it anew. With the similarly-titled book conveying an uncanny life and energy that easily stimulates both the raw senses and the imagination, this film adaptation bursts of the same raw vitality of the human spirit fully prevalent in the said literary work. It's as if this film isn't merely a cinematic translation of classic literature but more of a direct affirmation of the material's true underlying power.

Even in just the film's opening scene alone, as we see the car which carries our flawed hero R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in a performance that only 'he' can call his own) into the mental institution, there's this clear-cut inevitability of a living and breathing cinematic rendition, and how everything, although there were drastic liberties taken by director Milos Forman and company, really seems to fall into place and almost symphonic in a way. Never have I been more excited of seeing a book's setting, which in that case a mental hospital, being visually laid down into separate sets of narrative establishments, and never have I been more compelled to see characters, even clinically-crazy ones at that (which I have treated as my subconscious friends for more than 2 weeks while I read the book), slowly populate the composite spaces of the screen.

Considering that the film is that of a mercurial human drama, inappropriately as it may seem, I was extremely pumped up towards re-watching "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the same way as when I'm about to watch a nicely-hyped thriller feature. And as the film, with only slightly more than 2 hours in its sleeve to cover all of the novel's essence, comes to an end, I came to a conclusion which I deem to be very proper: As a mere adaptation, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" had its issues, particularly the much discussed and polarizing change of the story's main point of view from Chief Bromden (played by Will Sampson) to McMurphy. But as a stand-alone film, it really is quite untouchable in its unwavering capacity to deliver a walloping emotional punch and an unforgettable humanization of a place commonly conceived to have forgotten about it. It is indeed one of the best films of the 70's, and the fact that it has swept all the major honors in the 48th Academy awards agrees with my rave assumption.

What really moves this film forward in terms of both pacing and characterization, aside from the brilliant dynamics of the relationship between Nicholson's defiant McMurphy and Louise Fletcher's great portrayal of a mechanically brutal Nurse Ratched (I wonder if she's an acquaintance of Miss Trunchbull, or Warden Norton perhaps), are the eager and resilient all-around performances by the film's sideshow supporting cast of Acutes and Chronics, specifically early roles by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and especially the underrated character actor Brad Dourif. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (edit: I read in the IMDb trivia page that he was actually replaced by Bill Butler early in the production due to Wexler's creative dispute with producer Michael Douglas) finely contrasted the mental institution's structure, both its calm exterior shots and white-painted interiors which symbolically exudes the characters' pristine but insidious imprisonment within a so-called therapeutic environment with the suggestive spark plug-like 'chaos' about to explode at any given time.

Like Milos Forman's earlier "The Firemen's Ball", through the use of quick cuts and rapid verbal noises to highlight the escalation of tension and full-blown disorder, he has painted a fragile mental atmosphere merely held together by the Big Nurse's wide-eyed cold glances and authoritatively monotonous voice, but is forcefully being loosen up by McMurphy's knack for anarchic freewill.

But McMurphy is by no means an enduring hero of sorts. Unlike other inspiring, Oscar bait-y films that have since came out of the bowels of Hollywood, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is never meant to be a black and white struggle between the proverbial 'good' and 'evil', but as a timeless study of extreme authority clashing with non-conformity.

Chief Bromden, on the other hand, is our mediator, but at the same time, a conceptual representation of the 'unreliable' narrator (at least in the novel). And as what I've mentioned above, if the varied characters have been my friends for the past 2 weeks or so while I read the book, Bromden has been my bestest there is, and seeing him quite underdeveloped in the film is like reuniting with a good ol' friend of mine again after so many years but mysteriously does not seem to want to talk to me anymore.

But through that crucial flaw, a flaw so detrimental that it has given Ken Kesey enough reason not to watch the film until his dying days, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is still a masterful film that blurs the boundaries between comedy and drama, the bittersweet and the tragic.

"But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that." Great, enduring words from McMurphy which speaks of great meaning regarding the characters' predicament as much as it does to filmmakers in general in the context of literary adaptations. There's a recurring trivia that Ken Kesey, seeing this film one time on TV without knowing that it is indeed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", thought it was interesting (of course he immediately found out). Just as what I've said earlier, although in some ways a letdown as an adaptation, it brilliantly succeeds as a film which holds its own ground as a genuine classic of American cinema.


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