As yet another year starts winding down to an end, I, at my age, can’t help feeling nostalgic. Indeed, at my age, I can’t help feeling nostalgic at any time of the year: everything nowadays reminds me of something from the past. Except for modern films. They don’t remind me of the past at all – but they do remind me how good films used to be.
And I don’t mean arthouse movies, or films you really have to go out of your way to see: I’m sure there are a few nuggets to be found if one looks hard enough. I mean mainstream films that are likely to come to my local cinema.
Last night, I watched on DVD a film from the mid-70s – One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. I can’t remember the last time I saw this film, but I can certainly remember the first. I had just turned 16, and was in my final year at school, just outside Glasgow. My father had obtained a new post in Lancashire, and my parents had decided to go down there for a week in search of a place to live. However, with my final year examinations coming up, it was out of the question for me to miss school: so I was left home alone. I have no idea how legal that was either then or now, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. A week on my own, doing as I pleased, seemed like heaven to me.
So that Saturday afternoon, I wandered around a wet Glasgow city centre, looking for a film to see. It had to be an X-rated film, because, after all, I was an adult now … at least, I could easily pass for 18. Not that I wanted to watch a porn film, as such: I knew which cinemas specialised in porn films, and, adult or not, would have been far too embarrassed to be seen queuing at those places – although what those cinemas in those days were allowed to show was no doubt very mild and innocent compared to what now seems acceptable even in mainstream cinema. That is not to say, of course, that I would have objected to a quick artistic flash, perhaps; but what I really wanted to see was a grown-up film – a drama aimed at a grown-up audience: I disdained the very idea of watching some kiddies’ movie..
And I remember still that after walking round the city centre cinemas, my short-list consisted of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (with Al Pacino), and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to go round the cinemas now and be presented with a choice of such quality? But let us not digress. On the toss of a coin, I went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was an adult film – in the sense that it was a drama that was aimed at grown-ups, and demanded much of its audience.
A few months afterwards, my parents had moved down to Lancashire, and I was living in a students’ hall of residence on Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the big films of the year, and all my fellow students with whom I associated – most about a couple of years older than me – had seen it. And the discussions we used to have about it in each others’ rooms, or around a few beers in the pub! (Yes – I can admit now I was an under-aged drinker…) Never mind Hamlet – was Randall Patrick McMurphy really mad, or was he merely pretending to be? Did he really care for the other inmates, or was he just out for himself? Did he have a therapeutic effect on the others? Did Nurse Ratched actually understand Billy better than McMurphy did? Why did McMurphy not escape when he had the opportunity? And so on. I won’t pretend these discussions were particularly profound or in-depth, but the very fact that we could come out of a film and have so many issues to discuss does bespeak a certain degree of complexity in the film. I wonder what kids have to discuss nowadays when they come out a showing of the latest biggest and baddest action-adventure-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects-extravaganza. The sort of thing, in other words, which, even had they existed in my time, we would have disdained as being “kiddies’ movies”.
Watching this film again inevitably brought back a great many memories, but, beyond the nostalgia, I was reminded once again how good it is as a film. Of course, it would have no chance of being made these days. Several individual scenes last ten or more minutes at a time – with no fancy camerawork or anything like that, but focussing merely on people as they talk, and as they react to each other: for that, after all, is the substance of drama. Right at the very start of the film there is a scene lasting nearly ten minutes of two people – McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the head of the psychiatric hospital – just speaking to each other. Nowadays, even a scene lasting a mere two minutes would be considered overlong, and likely to tax the attention span of its no doubt sophisticated audience.
The film itself is set almost entirely within a psychiatric ward, and most of the principal characters are inmates. The drama as it unfolds involves electric shock treatment, a particularly nasty suicide, frontal lobotomy, and euthanasia – not exactly feelgood stuff. And the laughter that is encouraged at the behaviour of some of the inmates would certainly be considered non-PC these days, especially by those who appear not to realise that laughter does not necessarily imply denigration: I cannot think of any other film in which psychiatric patients are presented as humans, as individuals; and where, even as we laugh, we feel for them both sympathy and empathy. We come, indeed, to like them as people.
Milos Forman’s expert and unobtrusive direction strikes a path through very difficult territory without putting a foot wrong, and, while Jack Nicholson is obviously the star of the film – this was back in the days before he would turn up on set merely to roll his eyes, do his Jack-the-Lad routine, and collect the cheque … mind you, when you are playing merely in big-budget kiddies’ movies like the Batman films, what else can you do? – this is by no means a star vehicle. It’s an ensemble piece and the performances of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, of Brad Dourif, Danny de Vito, Cristopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, etc. as the immates, are all outstanding. Add to that an intelligent and perceptive script (adapted from what I am led to believe is a pretty mediocre novel – though I could be wrong on that), and the cinematic experience on offer makes, even on repeated viewing, a huge emotional impact. It made me feel very nostalgic indeed for the days when one could just wander into town and have a choice between films of such quality as this and Dog Day Afternoon.
I didn’t realise then that that era in the mid- to late- 70s, when I first became a student, was the fag-end of what, in retrospect, we may think of as a sort of golden era for mainstream Hollywood films. For soon, along came the Star Wars films and Spielberg, and cinema became not just juvenilised, but infantilised. Oh well – I still have my memories!