October 9, 2010

#54: MASH

"Suicide is painless / it brings on many changes / and I can take or leave it if I please..."

Shame me if you like, but my knowledge of MASH was nil to null before this, unless you count the childhood game wherein you learned by random forces of fate your future spouse, dwelling, occupation and how many children you'd have. I was born a couple years after the historical TV show, a spinoff of this film, went off the air, and had never seen this early Robert Altman effort. I learned in reading about the film that Altman had a difficult time working with the actors -- keep in mind, his signature improvisational style and actor clusterfloats were not common knowledge to anyone yet (not really until Nashville five years later) so he couldn't exactly get away with anything. It shows. A little, but it shows.

Company: solo, after an evening performance

Cuisine: Svedka & diet Coke, and nearly half of that bag of animal crackers. It was a dollar at Target! C'mon!

We open in 1951 on helicopters lifting injured soldiers in Korea to M*A*S*H (the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), scored by a somber tune called "Suicide is Painless." It's bold, I'll give it that. But then the film starts, and in what would become Altman's way, conversations overlap and the story ambles forward, not always letting us know it's sure of where it's going. I've seen several of his films and would call myself an Altman fan, but the results here don't gel the way the style does in later films like The Player or Gosford Park. I didn't really find myself empathizing for or following one character (to be honest, I couldn't tell you either of the character's names pictured above without IMDBing them). I know I shouldn't look for a plot, but it's a habit!

"You're not hungry, are you?" "Ravenous ... for you, Margaret."

Not until Major Burns (Robert Duvall) and Major Houlihan (Oscar nominee Sally Kellerman) get down and dirty (and broadcast to the entire camp), and Houlihan earns the nickname "Hot Lips" for her sexual outburst "Kiss my hot lips!" (a great moment), did I really get invested in what was happening. I may have missed an outline of the power structure at M*A*S*H, but once Burns and Hot Lips are embarrassed, it doesn't matter much anymore anyhow. The general attitude is that they're all there because they were drafted, not because any of the medical staff feel especially or necessarily compelled to be there. And so, the rest of the film simply juxtaposes anti-war humor with surgical procedure.

"Kiss my hot lips!"

I can see the reasoning behind turning this satire into a long running series -- the camp is constantly fluctuating, and there's clearly plenty of broad humor to go around, both in lampooning military stereotypes and marginalizing the Korean War (a three-year conflict which, by the way, was examined on television for eleven seasons). The film scored a handful of Oscar nominations (and won for Screenplay) but the series is a landmark whose finale was watched by over 100 million people. Maybe it's a generational thing that I don't get?

But like the crowd gathered before yet another extraordinary embarrassment for Hot Lips, America was rapt.

And admittedly, I was too, until the last episodic sequence featuring a football game. Is it just me, or does football make for terrible cinema? Of all the sports, it seems the least dramatic to me, with the least amount of sophistication, but maybe I'm just trying to justify not enjoying the sport by claiming it's cinematically obsolete. Maybe I should stop using such big words and just watch the game! I feel like I might have made the same mistake Hot Lips makes:

Hot Lips: (after a gun shot) My God, they've shot him!
Colonel Blake: Hot Lips, you incredible nincompoop. It's the end of the quarter!

I hope someday I will have the chance to call someone an incredible nincompoop when a) I mean it and b) they deserve it.

For a movie with a structure I don't quite get yet, maybe that's as good a place as any to end it. Maybe I need to watch some of the series at some point?

More 70s cinema, only of the heavier variety, coming up. Next: The Deer Hunter.

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