Monday, March 31, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "M*A*S*H"

M*A*S*H (1970)

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Ring Lardner, Jr. based on the novel by Richard Hooker



It’s almost impossible nowadays to separate the film “M*A*S*H” from the TV show “M*A*S*H;” the series is so ingrained in our heads even today, that we often don’t remember certain details from the original film. (“M*A*S*H” came in first in my “TEN GREATEST TV SHOWS OF ALL-TIME POLL!” recently, some 40 years after it debuted.) I forgot just how much of a religious freak Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns was compared to Larry Linville’s more dimwitted Frank. He was always straight-laced, but the religious aspect not only was a shield to his incompetence and hypocrisy, but when he assures himself that if the patient died because it was god’s way, and he prefers prayer instead of action, his behavior becomes downright despicable and vulgar. I always preferred the later season version of Hot Lips (Oscar-nominee Sally Kellerman, her character called Margaret O’Houlihan, in the movie despite the “O’, being dropped for the show), after her affair with Frank and her marriage had ended, when she finally became human. But that Hot Lips wouldn’t work in the film. She needs to be so inhuman that we laugh at her during the famous shower scene, instead of sympathizing with her. The fact that she doesn’t seem to mentally grasp the horrors of war that the rest of the hospital sees every day, is why all of the antics performed in the film work. If the practical jokes were a part of a National Lampoon film, they wouldn’t be funny, and in fact they would cruel and sadistic, and the person who pulled them would be as big of a villain character as Norman Bates is. (In a different way, of course) In “M*A*S*H” the jokes are still cruel and sadistic, but it’s better than the alternative of going crazy.

I haven’t pulled too many practical jokes in my time, but in case life itself got too boring, I always use to try to do something unusual. I remember in 8th grade during a geography test, a subject I’m an expert at, I finished a test very early, but instead of sitting quietly waiting for everyone else to finish, I took out a deck of cards that I had in my jacket pocket, and started to play solitaire as though I was the only one in the room, just to see if anybody would notice. As far as I could tell, nobody did, but I thought the joke was bad enough that in the mundane world of middle school, that you had to laugh at it, whether you thought it was funny or not. That’s the kind of humor employed in “M*A*S*H,” where Hawkeye and Trapper (Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould) would find it perfectly logical as doctors to go golfing on their downtime, even if they don’t have a golf course to go to.  Laughter is the best medicine I guess. Well, that’s not true-, it’s not really medicine, it’s more like the booze they drink or the sex everyone has, not a cure, but it’s something fun to do that you hope, if you do it enough, you’ll forget the war.

The film works better on multiple viewings, and must have been a breath of fresh air when the movie came out. It wasn’t Robert Altman’s first film, that was the documentary “The James Dean Story,” but that was thirteen years earlier, and he spent much of the rest of his time in between learning his craft as a TV director for shows like “Combat!”. Altman films become easier to digest the more they’re watched, the way he allows for improvisations by keeping mikes on everybody and editing the sound later as well as the takes, which he also lets runs to allow for the mundane and interesting to always be shot. He always thought mistakes were better and more natural than just getting a shot right. “M*A*S*H”, despite its episodic nature is almost strangely his most straightforward narrative. It’s certainly Altman’s most popular movie, even beloved by those who can’t stand him, and that popularity might’ve grown more because of the TV show’s success or vice-versa. It’s the Altman film I’ve watched the most and like the rest of his films the more you watch“M*A*S*H,” the richer and funnier the more subtle the jokes get. His dramas never seem like dramas, why would his comedies look like comedies. 

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