American New Wave: MASH

mash-2-560Update mid-2018: This remains one of those very early college-era reviews I’m not especially proud of. In an ideal world, I would write up a new piece, but having recently rewatched the film, I’ll simply note how much I still admire its bracingly self-effacing tone, its stylistic shagginess, and its will to break any illusion of a dramatic arc. Before, of course, Altman finally side-winds us with a self-critically arbitrary conclusion: a parodic football game that sketches the link between competitive sport and war-mongering, doubles as a satire of dramatic pay-off, and triples as a mockery of masculinity – that ego-stroking liminal realm where the interstices of anarchy and authoritarianism, id and dogma, collapse into one another – played in Altman’s quintessentially sardonic key.

Original – Edited – Review:

Long considered one of America’s favorite comedies, MASH was, ironically for its famed humor, director Robert Altman’s coming-out as a serious filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Released in 1970, it was one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War (albeit under a historical guise) seriously and, released in January of 1970, it was the first masterpiece of the literal “1970s American New Wave” (which technically began a few years earlier in 1967). It’s a comedy, yes, but it’s also a daring, caustic exploration of male culture, American smugness and malaise (categorically Altman’s favorite topic as a bitterly comic dissector of his nation’s culture), and war bureaucracy (the connection to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is unmistakable, perhaps fitting considering the underwhelming formal adaptation of that book released the same year – one can’t complain though, for Altman gave us all we’ll ever need on the book). This is a film with many big laughs and many more subtle chuckles. But that I have used the word “serious” multiple times in only the first paragraph is anything but coincidence.

That’s because the core of the film, as may secretly be true for any comedy if the director truly understands the writer’s words, is trauma. Unlike many comedies, MASH isn’t desperate for a laugh – it essays them confidently from its characters’ lives more than from the needs of a script. But it is desperate in a much more pointed sense. The center of the film is a couple of counter-culture figures who struggle to come to terms with war by not coming to terms with it, avoiding it, and making the mobile army surgical hospital, where they save lives, their own personal frat house. They are Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper (Elliot Gould), two seemingly meaningless and completely artificial nicknames given to two doctors at a mobile army surgical hospital (a MASH) during the Korean War, and the film plays out as a slice-of-life battleground between their lackadaisical anti-authoritarian hijinks and the moral authority’s attempts to return the favor. They stage pranks involving somewhat mockingly playing along with someone who wants to commit suicide and trying to see women naked. At their core, however, is an inability to cope with war as a serious endeavor, a failure equal parts the necessities of the hell of the very situation of war and their own crass, immature masculine worldview.

Altman was a bit of cocky troublemaker in his younger days, and his films, at least his earlier ones, always threaded the line between celebration and harsh critique of that perpetual male hooligan immaturity. Hawkeye and Trapper aren’t nice guys. In fact, they’re mean-spirited cynics. And they’re not excused for their condition – Altman self-reflexively critiques counter-culture aimlessness and its intersection with oppressive genderism as much as he goes for the moral authority with a camera set to mangle. We come away unsure of whether anyone ever could address war as a serious endeavor and live through it. Maybe, but maybe these two losers just never tried. This prefaces the fact that MASH is one of Altman’s most curmudgeonly films. He was after all an older man at this time, trying his game in the Hollywood New Wave, and if he found success in the time period, he wasn’t about to fall in love with the rambunctious youngsters kick-starting a new sort of Americana. Altman has a few choice words for them –  namely, they aren’t so different from the “authority” they want to fight.

Of course, if Altman is interested in judging the two, he’s also interested in taking the war machine to task for bringing them there in the first place. One of the film’s most famous lines of dialogue has a no-nonsense war-maker criticize Hawkeye and ask how someone such as he could have entered the war. The response, “he was drafted”, a stark reminder that forcing someone to join the army doesn’t mean you can make them a fitting part of, is scarily chilling. Elsewhere, the film certainly has some harsh words for the military bureaucracy, befitting its spiritual relation to that eternal anti-war anarchic diatribe masquerading as a next-gen Marx Brothers routine masquerading as Catch-22.

Meanwhile, the perpetual hospital intercom gives cinema perhaps its wryest narrator ever, periodically announcing films to be shown for the troops in Korea that detail the lighter-side of war, such as one which promises the “most fun with World War II” that can be had. One higher-up refers to pre-Pearl Harbor as the “dark days” due to its lack of impetus for US involvement in the world – at the end, he just wants to be out and about asserting his manhood and blowing things up with it, and the godsend of Pearl Harbor gave him that. There’s a wonderfully sardonic moment when a character’s depression is only accepted by Hawkeye when he’s informed the man said that poker was “only a game”, and the funniest line, involving the same man, has him thinking he’s homosexual and worried that he’ll disappoint his fiances – he has three – in a stinging, caustic attack on conservative family values.

Elsewhere, the hospital scenes are probably the film’s most famous (occasionally, and it is intentional that it is only occasional, we are reminded that these men who mostly screw around all day are in fact trained surgeons, or at least we’re told they are, and one brittle pained laugh has men operating and changing the seriousness of the procedure depending upon whether the wound adorns an officer’s body or just a regular enlisted man, who in bureaucracy must matter less).  The intersection of war and religion, the notion of asking men to die for the continuation of American world domination and then having the guts to ask for forgiveness for doing so, is sent-up throughout the film, with a hilarious final appearance from the hospital’s chaplain asking God to “bless this jeep” as it takes two of our anti-heroes home.

Thus, the humor in the film is satire – angry, bitter, even absurdist satire – with no real room for truly likable characters, only characters we want to like if only to find someone to connect with. Of course, the film is set in Korea but it is really about Vietnam – released in 1970, the thought of a film that would directly address America’s then current world venture by name was years away. And Altman understands this tension and explores it visually and aurally throughout the film. Late on he has artificial gongs dictate the end of scenes for no reason other than to explore the very artifice of the film, and the music follows suit. Throughout, we get tunes of grandeur that would fit in a classic Hollywood romance, and yet they accompany the men screwing around or feigning the Last Supper (in a scene of wonderful set design as well) as if to say “this is the feel-good aura you’d expect from a war comedy, huh? Well we’re sure gonna give it to you!” The film’s famous theme, “Suicide is Painless”, is a dry, somber affair, but when one considers how suicide figures into the film’s plot, it comes off at once as a serious reflection on the day-to-day doldrums of military dehumanization and a slightly mocking pastiche of topical folk songs ubiquitous in the early ’70s in counter-culture film. Again, MASH is as much a mockery of New Wave cinema as a reflection of it, and in that regard it’s a curious, dangerous beast indeed.

Yet, Altman matches his aural subversion with wonderfully caustic visual filmmaking too. Throughout, the camera glides around people as they enter and leave the frame, going into and out of conversations before we can get the sense of them, and leaving characters we think are important hanging as it hurriedly moves past them in boredom. It captures, above all, the futility of their lives and how unimportant they are to any semblance of narrative. It captures their emptiness, literally giving us a camera that doesn’t want to follow them as they speak, to follow the rules of filmic language. It instead chooses to focus on their empty space, being a rebel of its own like Hawkeye and Trapper, less interested in story or character than messing with us.

In turn, this fits the structure of the film –  intentionally episodic and mundane, a slice of life story in a situation we expect to big and dramatic, here just another day on the job. And they make due with boredom by creating those kinds of big and dramatic falsities we would expect for themselves. There’s a stunning scene where two characters have sex and Hawkeye and co. rig the scene with a microphone so everyone can hear. Not only is the sound of their moaning and talking captured with an intentional artifice – it’s overpoweringly loud and creepily inhuman to hear the characters talk and the audio from the recording follow, overpowering what they’ve actually said from their mouth. But as they discover what’s going on and run out to find the perpetrators, the camera shoots their face through a plate glass window in a door that distances us from them and distorts them. Mostly, it just looks like a television. It sees them as products, as artifice, as the objects of entertainment the camp’s men see them as. This is their TV, their weekly radio program, their aimless slice-of-life drama constructed for an audience of only them.

If the malaise of the camp was all MASH had, it would still be a subversive masterwork. Yet, as the film stutters toward its end, the directing picks up toward a climax of a pointedly different tone: a staged football match. Of note: it is just about the only thing in the whole film anyone seems excited about. It’s not what we would think of as serious war, but everyone treats it as such because they can win money. But there’s more – in its male competitiveness, it reminds them of war and the fun they make with it. It reminds them of how, to them, war is really nothing more than a game. Altman captures this with a scary, clear eye and a sense of knowing anger toward their behavior. This is their conflict, the thing which interrupts their daily existence when we would expect shooting and battles.

And Altman’s effervescent direction here follows suit, running around and rampaging and spinning circles where once he would slowly glide to convey malaise.  Here he moves in obviously confusing and artificial ways, foregoing an understanding of what is actually happening in the game. He’s filming an inconclusive, chaotic battle, and to these men, that’s exactly what it is. Just as his camera runs around in circles and disjoints us from their lives, so do football and war do the same for them – distancing them from their humanity even as they us it to define their lives. It is, here, an artificial way of relating – but not really relating – to each other.

This endgame would seem to be Altman’s masterstroke, but he has one more ace up his sleeve – perhaps the greatest final credits ever captured in film, a sly trick so cheeky and so tossed off-it barley even registers as something we didn’t simply imagine. I won’t spoil it, except to say it involves the intercom narrator, who had up until this point primarily announced fake films, breaking the fourth wall and openly treating this film that we have been watching as one of those fake films. He goes on to announce all the actors in the film with such a speedy tiredness, as if heaving and struggling to maintain interest while getting through all the names. As if he doesn’t really care, and is only doing this because he’s been paid. It’s a wonderful bit of open artifice and Altman forcing the audience to come to terms with the fakery of everything they’ve just watched and anything we think we know about war. I now realize I’ve just functionally gone and spoiled the ending after saying I wouldn’t – see how this film excites me so?

And exciting is a nice word for messy when it comes to MASH. It’s a glorious mess of a film, with this final joke shoe-horned in with an open-faced level of obviousness. It feels like a different ending had been planned originally, and when Altman got tired toward the end of filming, he just sort of told the announcer to read off everyone’s names as quickly as possible to “get it over with already”.

Indeed, this messiness runs through the whole film –  all of the intercom announcements are off-the-cuff, borderline absurdist explorations into non-narrative filmmaking. The whole film around them is aimless yet rushed, with camerawork and editing that wait when it should move forward and move forward when it should wait –  it feels amateurish and sloppy, and yet, over-time, it approximates a voice its own, and a voice completely distant from any other cinema. It is, in its very filmic (as opposed to simply narrative) bones, a film out of order, made of discombobulated parts sewn together uneasily. It is a barrel-house rampage of a film which kicks and screams around at everything it can find. It is almost cheerily and pointedly free of nuance –  it mostly just mocks and is angry at just about everything (Altman went this route again with 1973’s The Long Goodbye, a much more holistic and less flawed film). His later films, most notably McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, and especially Nashville, found humanism and care in cynical despair. Here he’s just pissed.

To this extent, MASH is very much flawed –  it lacks nuance, it’s smug to a fault, its critique of masculinity doesn’t excuse its treatment of women, a number of scenes are either in poor taste of just plain don’t fit –  but it’s the kind of film where even the weaknesses are part of a larger strength. It’s amateurish, poorly focused, rambling messiness serves as a reflection on the messiness and lack of narrative coherence of the time period –  this was the very early ’70s, after all, when everyone was  confused and searching every which way for a solution as they felt rigor mortis setting in early on a dying society. They had not yet become “sure” of a direction –  the hopeless, cynical one of the mid ’70s of course. If Altman’s film here is smug and dour in narrative, its filmmaking is positively alive.

None of this should work together, and it almost didn’t – MASH was the first of many, many alienating, anarchic Altman sets. His two main stars at one point were almost inadvertently thrown headfirst into method acting when they rebelled against Altman for his rambling in-corruptibility and steadfast obstinance. It’s no wonder that Altman followed up a decade of changing the face of cinema with an almost complete break from it in the 1980s. But the tension in the film’s making is precisely its fascination when laid bare on screen. There’s a sense Altman realizes the whole thing is pure chaos (thus the film’s somewhat anti-American New Wave suggestions), that he realizes the other more youthful filmmakers around him favored energy over coherence or nuance. And he wants to be a part of this even as he critiques himself for it. More simply put, this was a filmmaker out of his league and testing the waters of youth by jumping head-first into them. He struggles to come to terms with all the wonderful cognitively dissonant nose-water that comes with, but the results are all the more compelling for the struggle.

Score: 9/10 (altered upon re-viewing)

 

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