An interdisciplinary collaboration between the Faculties of Arts and Medicine & Health at the University of Leeds
There’s an interesting debate going on in the BMJ forum. A psychiatrist is lamenting a management decision to show patients Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based (loosely) on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name (itself based loosely on Kesey’s experiences working on a US psychiatric ward in the 1950s).
Apparently, the film is being shown as a ‘rehab’ tool, but almost all the clinicians commenting in the forum think that this is: ‘dangerous’; ‘scary’; ‘unprofessional’ and – without irony – ‘madness’.
Criticism of the decision seems mainly to focus on the anachronistic nature of the representation of mental health care. Simply put: 1950s US treatment tells us nothing about 21st century UK treatment.
I’m not certain that is true. Good art – or less pompously, good storytelling and characterisation – always transcends historical context. The (artistic) truth speaks across the decades, or the centuries. An obvious example: the psychological woes and worries of a Danish prince continue to console and beguile audiences 400 years since first performed.
That’s not to say that there aren’t serious problems with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). For example, the representations of women and African-Americans must have seemed (to be polite) ‘dated’ even at the time. Similarly, the collective compositional Gestus of the chronically mentally ill seems hardly more nuanced than that in the final painting of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Insulting perhaps, patronising certainly, but dangerous? Dangerous to whom?