One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic of American cinema, and Jack Nicholson’s most well-remembered cinematic role. The movie was based on an earlier theatrical production, and upon the the Ken Kesey novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had been loosely based upon his experiences working as a janitor or orderly in a VA mental hospital in California, where he also volunteered for LSD experiments.
A lesser-known fact is that having been released in 1975, as a cinematic retelling of a story set some 10-20 years earlier, it is an extremely realistic portrayal of what State mental institutions were like until fairly recently, insofar as how the facilities were set up and what the available treatments were.
Nurse Ratched is easily vilified and has become synonymous with representatives of institutionalized cruelty in our age, and McMurphy observes that she likes to “play with a rigged deck”. However, though some of her policies are merely protective of institutional inertia (what can putting the World Series game on the ward’s television hurt?), certain of her actions are an attempt to impose order upon chaos and good habits upon pathology; in many cases, she engaged in such restrictive measures as withholding other patients’ cigarettes in an effort to stem the negative influence upon the other patients on the part of McMurphy, who had started gambling with the other patients and had won much of their existing supply of money and cigarettes. Though the patients possess wishful thinking of winning these items back, if enabled to gamble some more, Ratched holds out no such hopes and is immune to McMurphy’s charisma. She thinks the regimen of the institution, if strictly adhered to, can at least partially “fix” McMurphy and the other patients, but McMurphy’s fellow inmates welcome the excitement and fun McMurphy’s stunts bring into their drab world. In an interview with Dr. Spivey, the chief psychiatrist, Randall Patrick McMurphy admits that the reason he got sent to prison, and subsequently to the mental institution was, “as near as I can figure out, it’s ’cause I, uh, fight and fuck too much”. This movie is as much about the way society deals with such a nonconformist as much as it is about the personal conduct of such an individual himself; as the behind-the-scenes deliberations of the doctors and Nurse Ratched are shown and the workings of the various bureaucracies dealing with McMurphy are put before the audience. The treatment team make the fateful decision to “keep him (McMurphy) on the ward”, rather than exercising the other options available to them of sending McMurphy to another ward with more “disturbed” patients, or, as the head of the hospital wanted, sending him back to the prison work farm, on the grounds that McMurphy wasn’t technically mentally ill, and that therefore he could well be returned to the penal system, rather than remain in the mental health system.

Though the medical and psychiatric knowledge of the time had decided that McMurphy was “not crazy, but he is dangerous”, modern-day audiences view this picture with a different perspective than people did when it was released in the 1970s. These days, folks are likely to ask, upon seeing McMurphy’s provoking manner, if perhaps, he “has ADD”, which, back then, was not considered possible in an adult. Some speculate that he might have been a sociopath. Modern audiences also express shock at what was then a common procedure, and, during the time period referenced by the original book upon which the movie is based, the only game in town, electroshock therapy without anesthesia, which is now banned in the US, being widely considered barbaric and cruel.
At one point when a melee erupts in the ward, and McMurphy and the Chief are among those taken away immediately to get electroshock treatment, ostensibly to calm their agitated, violent states, but actually because it is the prevailing punishment this particular bureaucracy can dispense. While McMurphy and the Chief are sitting on a bench outside the electroshock room, waiting their turn, McMurphy does the chief the small kindness of offering him a stick of gum. Chief thanks McMurphy for the gum, and with surprise, McMurphy notes that the Chief “can talk” and is thus not “deaf and dumb” as he had previously been described by others in the ward. (Chief actually came off more as a catatonic to me). The Chief warns McMurphy about people “working on him” by telling him the tragic story of his own bedevilled and alcoholic father. Nevertheless, McMurphy continues his antics and continues to get himself and others into escalating amounts of trouble.
Though the predominant disability portrayed in this movie is mental illness in various forms and degrees, both by actors and by authentic patients who had roles as “extras”, there is the occasional wheelchair user shown at various times and places in the hospital, and it is not uncommon to see stray manual wheelchairs left unattended, and easily commandeered by the able-bodied. Though the hospital was built well before the ADA became law, and is probably not designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind, the patients’ swimming pool has a concrete ramp on which an older male patient in a wheelchair is gently rolled into the pool, wheelchair and all.
There were no shortage of “acquired disabilties” in the mental institutions of the time: in the past, when electroshock was the predominant form of treatment, and was given in much the same way in real life as it was to Jack Nicholson, it was tacitly acknowledged that some brain damage was part of the deal.
Lobotomies were a common form of treatment in mental institutions in the past, and while dramatic loss of intelligence and personality was not always the direct result of lobotomization, in this movie, an individual who has had a lobotomy is portrayed as a drooling, incontinent zombie, and McMurphy is shown as passive and silent, and no longer “him”, following his lobotomy.

The Social Network

In The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of the book ‘The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal‘, the actor who plays FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg portrays the character with certain characteristics which are suggestive of Asperger’s Syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorders. On many occasions, Zuckerberg’s character is shown as having a flat affect (especially if he is asked something while concentrating on his work at the computer), and in one instance, he engages in hand motions similar to those exhibited by Temple Grandin.

However, in an early scene of the movie, his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend has other ideas about what ails him. In a tete-a-tete at a restaurant, when his conversation was dominated by his fixation on how he wanted to get into a one of Harvard’s influential clubs, and how he would go about “gaming” the process, she speculates that he might be “OCD”, and would benefit from medication. Later on, she comes up with a more colorful assessment of his character: he must have some exceptional flexibility, in order to get his “head up his ass”.

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a professor of child psychology at California State U, had this assessment:

Jesse Eisenberg’s character qualifies as showing signs of many DSM-IV psychiatric conditions including adult antisocial personality disorder, Asperger’s, ADHD, and narcissistic personality disorder. But on the other hand, he defined a socially connected world where those behaviors are acceptable or at least accepted. If you examine our behavior behind the screen we feel comfortable acting in any way we can because nobody can see us and we have some sense of safety in that we can’t see them. We can’t see them crying, or feeling hurt. So Eisenberg’s behavior is actually acceptable online but unacceptable in person and is precisely what we’re seeing exhibited now behind one of the many screens countless hours each day.”

It is initially made to seem that certain extremely negative characteristics, including a conspicuous coldness to others including those who are supposed to have the status of friends, are inherent personality defects on the part of Zuckerberg.

His separateness from the general population is even emphasized by what must be the producers’ and scriptwriters’ decision to riff on or to rip off A Beautiful Mind, by having him write the algorithm for the functionality of FaceBook in paint marker on his dorm room windowpane. Zuckerberg’s social milieu, however, can hardly be said to be stocked with eusocial examples for him to emulate. Many of his peers who are ostensibly “normal” may have different daily conduct, but in many cases, it could hardly be called “better”. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that a number of individuals, both co-founders and rivals, spend a great deal of time engaged in manipulating and sabotaging others for material and psychic gain. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) at one point seems to be exerting undue influence over Zuckerberg in the newly-formed corporation and this contributes to a falling out with Zuckerberg’s former best (and only) friend, Edwardo.

The Winklevoss twins, in an effort to get Zuckerberg punished by the official power of the university, alleging that Zuckerberg had violated the institution’s honor code while working on the similar software development project they had contracted, The Harvard Connection, by stealing their idea and turning it into facebook, go to the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers (also reputedly an Aspie) who tells them to simply “find another idea”.

Clinging desperately to that idea, having attached a disproportionate amount of potential profit to it, every one of the principals ends up suing everybody else, resulting in a legal, social, and financial morass which takes a team of lawyers a lot of time around a conference table to sort out. Zuckerman ends up learning remorse and regret for the damage done to relationships he had perhaps taken for granted, turning to a female lawyer for advice and support, and saying something genuinely indicative of caring to her.

Since we are not privy to the real Zuckerberg’s medical records, the audience is left to ask… Aspie or Asshole?

Like Stars On Earth (Taare Zameen Par)

Warning: The fast-moving blinking introductory sequence to this picture could trigger seizures or otherwise pose a problem for those with sensory issues.

Like Stars on Earth is ostensibly about a small boy from India named Ishaan who has dyslexia, but from what is initially portrayed, he seems to have a larger problem with a wandering mind and very intense daydreaming, both in and out of class. However, this makes him a gifted artist, who is well above his age group in what he can draw and imagine. The movie says that he is 8 years old, but he actually looks much smaller than an eight-year old. While his older brother brags to his parents of his high marks, Ishaan tosses his test papers to the dogs, and tries to avoid talking about school.

It is perhaps the structure and restrictions of the normal expectations of the school system that rub him the wrong way, because one day, after having been punished by being sent by the teacher to stand in the hallway, he goes AWOL and wanders the streets, savoring the exciting sights of tourist-film India. He appears to be somewhat hyperactive. If his parents attempted to have him tested, it may be that he never sat still long enough to get a diagnosis.

Everyone in Ishaan’s life complains about him, from the school bus driver, because he is constantly late and must be bodily pulled away from whatever he is doing when it is time to take the bus; to the teachers who see sub-par schoolwork and bad behavior, to the neighborhood kids who have no love for him because of his bad aim with a ball.

Things come to a head when he is busted by his parents for having forged an absence note to account for that day out of school. They have a meeting with his teachers and it is revealed that Ishaan is repeating the third grade, and his teachers tell his parents that there’s been no improvement the second time around. They suggest Ishaan’s parents send him to a “special school”, but Ishaan’s father believes that it is the class size of 60 and a perceived “lack of discipline” that has led to Ishaan’s academic failure. So he makes good on his repeated threat to send Ishaan to boarding school, where the teachers attempt to cure his wandering attention by rapping his hands with a ruler, his problems seeing letters “dancing” in front of him on book pages and blackboards and his academic failures continue.

Ishaan is clearly depressed by the above by the time the school gets a new art teacher, who makes a dramatic entrance with a song-and-dance routine, playing a flute and wearing a clown suit. (This movie has several Bollywood-inspired mini-music videos effectively portraying certain situations and emotions in compressed amounts of time. They are very well done and a bit more restrained than in some movies meant strictly for East Indian consumption. The DVD has a separate section of them so they can be played independently of the movie.)

The new, youngish, enthusiastic teacher brings with him a wave of fresh air and happiness which is apparent to all, but doesn’t immediately sweep over Ishaan. The new, youngish, enthusiastic teacher (who also teaches at one of those so-called “special schools”) must first discover that Ishaan has dyslexia, and tell his parents and the other teachers, and embark upon a program of academic remediation for Ishaan and consciousness-raising for his classmates.

Superteacher will in time also reveal that he, too, has dyslexia, of course. (“Special Ed kid makes good by growing up to be Special Ed teacher” is the theme of any number of children’s books and college essays in the US.)

I love where he tells Ishaan’s father that in the Solomon Islands, villagers don’t chop down a tree when they want to clear land, but curse and hurl abuses at it, and the tree withers and dies soon after. My mother, a Special Ed teacher in a US-based special school, said “I would get fired if I were to talk to a parent like that”. This picture is a revealing look at middle class life in India, the importance placed by the striving middle class of India on school performance, and the school system in India, which, as it turns out has “Education for All” legislation on the books similar to Special Education laws which came into existence in the US during the 1970s, but which more often than not fail to be implemented on the school level in India.

One bright spot in Ishaan’s boarding school experience is that he makes friends with Raju, a boy with heavy, old-style braces on his legs who recognizes his intelligence, and (fulfilling the stereotype about disabled kids) is more observant and accepting than the other kids in the class.

Ishaan is seen having letters traced into his forearm, writing abcs in a sand tray, molding letters out of clay. Whatever problems he may have been having in Hindi (a language formally studied in school and spoken in class by some of the teachers) are not portrayed in this movie, just notebooks with backwards letters and misspelled words in English. Math concepts were given in an interesting fashion: the teacher had Ishaan ascend higher steps on an outdoor stairway to instill the concept of increasing numbers by multiplication. (What to do for a kid with both dyslexia and mobility impairments, if such a kid exists?) While all of these tactile measures portrayed may contribute to “rewiring” a dyslexic child’s brain, and are recognized techniques in special education, the idea that a kid will inevitably experience a shining improvement soon thereafter may not be realistic. The evidence of his inevitable improvement is portrayed as better English writing and his demonstrated ability to read a poster announcing a school-wide art contest and sound out a complex, multi-syllabic word.