When Terrence McNally, the four-time Tony Award-winning playwright, was completing his undergraduate degree at Harvard University in the late ’60s, he spent a summer as program director for a camp of chronic schizophrenics. The camp took 25 patients from a Boston hospital, each with an average stay of 12 years, and paired them up with college students, who lived with the patients, took care of the farm and received course credit for their work. To prepare, McNally got a copy of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had come out several years prior.
The film version of the book instantly came to mind when the Conference on World Affairs invited McNally to step into Roger Ebert’s shoes and lead the cinema interruptus, a cherished tradition Ebert carried on for more than three decades, in which he led a democratic dissection of a film, where anyone in the audience could shout out at any time and stop the film and begin a discussion, over the course of a week. McNally had to choose a film, and he whittled his selection down to two finalists, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dr. Strangelove. He went with the former, after festival director Jim Palmer told him to “choose the one that you would most like to spend the week with.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Kesey’s first published novel, inspired by his experience working at a California mental hospital. It tells the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a free spirit who had several minor run-ins with the law before finally getting arrested for statutory rape and sent to prison. (The girl said she was 18, McMurphy claims.) He rigs a transfer to a mental hospital, thinking he would have an easier time there than jail. Instead, he enters the bizarre reality of the mental ward, ruled with an iron fist by the controlling, manipulative Nurse Ratched.
Louise Fletcher’s performance as Nurse Ratched won an Oscar.
McNally’s thoughts drifted back to his time working with the mental patients as he re-watched the film. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy in Milo Forman’s 1975 adaptation of the film struck deep for McNally.
“I treated the patients that I worked with in the camp basically the same way that McMurphy did,” McNally says. “Instead of playing to their disability or the way people normally treated them, my way was just, ‘Come on! Let’s go do this!’ … It was phenomenal how most of them would respond very well to being asked more of.”
Nicholson’s performance is stunning and captivating, dripping with the sort of charisma for which Nicholson would soon become famous. He won an Oscar for his work, and the film became just the second film at the time to sweep the Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
McNally says the themes of the film, along with a stellar cast highlighted by the Oscar-winning performances of Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, make the film one that remains incredibly accessible 35 years after its release.
“College students, I think this is a film that they can really relate to,” McNally says. “My sense is … that notion that you aren’t allowed to exercise your freedom, that you’re under the control of, whether it’s your parents or the administration or the fact that you’re not 21 yet, all these things, I think the situation really resonates. So I’m hoping that we will attract a lot of students.”
The ensemble cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
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The cinema interruptus begins with an uninterrupted screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Monday, April 8, at 4 p.m. at Macky Auditorium. Discussions of the film begin Tuesday, April 9, at the same time and place and continue throughout the week of the conference.
The cinema interruptus is just one of the many arts-related events offered at the Conference on World Affairs. Along with the traditional Tuesday night (April 9) jazz concert, featuring Dave Grusin and Don Grusin and eight other jazz musicians, there are a number of panels on different aspects of entertainment, featuring a diverse mix of panelists.
“I dislike ranking culture — high-brow, middle-brow — it just doesn’t make sense to me,” says Palmer. “I can talk with enthusiasm about panels on vampires, cartooning, tattoos, those are terrific panels. We also have a panel on Hamlet, a panel on creativity in art and science.”
Jeff Lieberman will serve on at least eight panels during the conference. Lieberman, a multi-media artist, speaker, designer and musician, has four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work focuses on merging art and technology in a way that brings people “an emotional and mystical connection with science and the universe.”
“I talk about more intersections between science and meditation and spirituality, and what it means to be human, and where our sense of identity comes from, and how that relates to evolutionary ideas and maybe some of the paradoxes in our current scientific paradigm,” Lieberman says.
Self-portrait by Jeff Lieberman | Courtesy of Jeff Lieberman
One of the panels he will serve on, “Eureka! Creativity in Art and Science,” will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, in the UMC Glenn Miller East Ballroom on campus. Creativity is key in science as well as art, Lieberman says.
“In school when you learn science, you’re learning what we’ve already figured out,” Lieberman says. “You’re trying to replicate the formulas and see if you can do what they do. It doesn’t feel very creative. But as soon as you’re [in the professional world] doing research and trying to understand what we don’t understand … then it’s a completely creative process. Seeing our hidden assumptions and questioning them and removing them and allowing them to dissolve and relax into this unknown space.”
He will also serve on a panel called “Halo and Jigsaw: Blaming Violence on the Screens” at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12, in the Eaton Humanities building. Lieberman is hesitant to believe violent media inspire true-life violence.
“I think any discussion that places the violence on one specific thing ignores where violence really comes from,” Lieberman says.
Another panel Lieberman will serve on, “The Nature of Dreams,” makes Lieberman recall his time spent in India.
“I’m going to talk about how waking hours are a form of dreams, and how most people don’t seem to notice that,” Lieberman says. “There’s a great mystic from India, and he has this riddle saying that, imagine if every night you had a dream that picked up where the last dream left off. You’d have no way to prove which one was waking and which one was sleeping. It’s only the lack of continuity from night to night [that alerts you when you are dreaming].”