Jack Nicholson and Will Sampson in Milos Forman's
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To enliven my Friday night, I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the first time in many years. Unlike many movies I re-watch, it was just as good as I remembered it, maybe even a little better. That led me to reading a bunch of reviews, both contemporaneous and retrospective. Which led me to wonder how many Jack Nicholson movies I had seen; I identified with his R.P. McMurphy as an irrepressible rule-breaker. Which led me to a filmography.
My background impression in my mind was that I had seen "most" of Jack Nicholson's movies. At least, I imagined, a majority of them. When I was young and impressionable he was one of the top actors. I remembered seeing him in a bunch of very different things, from The Missouri Breaks (oddball anti-western yoking gay themes and brutal violence together) to The Shining (Stephen King horror flick, complete with famous Diane Arbus meme) to As Good As It Gets (old-guy-gets-young-girl rom-com). Well, guess what? Turns out, when I count, I have seen a grand total of ten Jack Nicholson movies. Out of...
Wow. I would not have guessed that.
But it brought to mind one of my favorite points from Barthes, which is that I've hardly ever seen any photographs.
Yep. Barthes pointed out that of all the photographs that have ever existed, each of us has only seen an infinitesimally small fraction. This is hard to fathom; we've been looking at photographs literally all our lives, virtually everywhere, and each one of us no doubt has the impression that if we added up all the photos we've ever so much as glanced at, it would make a relatively large pile. Yet we're wrong. None of us has seen very many photographs at all. A few million or tens of millions amongst the numberless billions.
Consider this: even if you're a loyal and religious reader of this blog, someone who follows every link, there's still very little overlap between the set of "all the photographs I've ever seen" and the set of "all the photographs you've ever seen." Our common ground is a remarkably slender strip between territories.
Given the withering blast of these facts, their tendency to obliterate a sense of common, shared experience, I cling to my beloved photo books as a bulwark against utter nihilism! I'm half kidding with these overblown words. Still, the books that I lovingly page through are my rock. They form a corpus of concrete work that constitutes my connection to the practice of this art and its great accomplishments. Yet it's easy to imagine not just one library the size of mine (~600 books), but many, with not a single volume in common between them. Alas.
I'm not crazy, I'm a fisherman
This was meant to be a tiny, brief post to throw out like chum on the waters before I get back to work finishing up the "Camera of the Year 2017" post, which might take a few hours, and which I will now return to doing. But before I do I thought I'd bring up a thought about Cuckoo's Nest, which is really one of the best movies I've ever seen. (Maybe the novel it's based on should be my annual classic novel for next year—I have the nifty First Edition Library facsimile of the first edition. Somewhere. I'd have to make a fishing expedition to the attic of the barn.)
One big point of contention among critics, and between critics and audiences, is the fishing expedition interlude in the middle of the movie. Roger Ebert, in his famously disapproving review, cited it as a major misstep in the film; other critics take a dim view of it as well. Yet for many audience members, it's their favorite part of the movie. I believe this is because many of us identify not with the hero, nor with the un-villainous (she's merely rigid and controlling) villain, nor with the Zen-inflected Native American who, in the film's exquisitely bittersweet ending, flies over the cuckoo's nest. Not really. We identify with the inpatients. In some corner of our Everyperson psyches, most of us sometimes idly wonder if we're quite sane, and long for a lighthearted jaunt in which everyone gets to be just a person and one of the gang no matter who they really are or what their state of inner sanity. As McMurphy says to Martini near the peak of the hilarity, "You're not a goddam looney now, boy, you're a fisherman!"
Personally, I think the scene serves a crucial purpose I've never seen mentioned. Like the daylight scenes at the very beginning and ending of Asphalt Jungle, another cinematic masterpiece, which otherwise takes place entirely at night, it serves to let a little fresh air and daylight into the movie, which would otherwise take place entirely on the mental wards and fenced-in grounds, which might have asphyxiated the film with an overdose of claustrophobia. It also serves to offer to the audience a sharp sense of freedom and relief, the better to contrast with the scenes at the end of the movie when McMurphy has literally opened the window to freedom but casually neglects to step through it while he can, thus dooming himself to his fate.
Plus, I would really not want to have gone without the touch in which McMurphy introduces the crew as being from the mental institute: "...This is Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Scanlon, Dr. Taber...."
Man, when you're a blogger it's like you get trained to go on and on about anything. This was almost literally written at the speed I type. But to return to the point, we might not be on common ground here: have you seen both Cuckoo's Nest and Asphalt Jungle? How about Ebert's review of Cuckoo's Nest, ever read that? Common ground among us is always shaky under our feet. Even Roger Ebert, whose appetite for watching feature-length films was protean, saw only 3% of the films released in the U.S. in his adult lifetime. (And, poignantly, none released since 2013.) We all need to choose wisely and zero in on the good stuff as best we can. Art, like history or the world, never mind photography, is large, large indeed.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Tom Burke: "I remember seeing One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest at the cinema when it was new, so that's a long time ago. Never read the book (although I did read the book about the author, The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, and boy did that have an impact on me), never read the review (I'm in the UK), never seen Asphalt Jungle.
"The other Jack Nicholson film that really influenced me, for a while, was Easy Rider. As regards apparently-inconsequential bits of movies that actually make a huge difference, my favourite has always the 'building the barn' sequence in Witness. Doesn't advance the plot one iota, but it certainly changes your impression of the Amish, or Mennonites, as portrayed in the film."
Mike replies: I do very well remember that lyrical passage in that excellent movie. Around here, Mennonites will show up to help even mainstream neighbors rebuild their barns if the barns were destroyed by natural disasters like fires.
A little punctum moment (speaking of Barthes...) that grabbed me was the plastic bag dancing in the vortex of wind in American Beauty.
Eolake: "OK, here is a funny thing: 1. Everybody always, always, always wants others to follow rules. 2: Every story always, always, always is about a hero who breaks rules. What the heck is that about? Are all of us really that blind and hypocritical that we want others to always follow rules, but for ourselves we want no rules? I suspect so."
Mike replies: Many of Freud's hypotheses have been superseded because he was early, but he's still a genius, and a surprisingly fine writer. The one book of his every literate person should read [follow my rule or you're not a literate person :-) ...] is Civilization and Its Discontents, which is about the tension between the unfettered Id yearning to be free and the demands of society's rules, conventions, and laws. Maybe everyone won't read it, but you might appreciate it, Eolake. It has a spiritual dimension I'd say.
Note that it's six days till Christmas and I've just linked to a book by Sigmund Freud. Oy, vey.
Thomas Osborne: "Your mention of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest leads to another work of art rooted in the Oregon State Hospital—photographer David Maisel’s 2008 book, Library of Dust. Maisel photographed the corroded copper canisters that held the cremated remains of the forgotten souls Ken Kesey had brought to life in his novel."
Mike replies: Just the very brief writeup and single picture at that link is very poignant. Thanks for that.
Jimmy Reina: "Re '...of all the photographs that have ever existed, each of us has only seen an infinitesimally small fraction,' Mose Allison said, 'The smartest man in the whole wide world really don't know that much.'"