Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Seventies Cinema Revival: M*A*S*H (1970)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Seventies Cinema Revival: M*A*S*H (1970)

Attention. Captain Banning... er, Captain Bandini. [exhales] Attention. Captain Bandini is now performing a femoral po... a popli... a p... a femoral P-O-P-L-I-T-E-R-A-L artery exp... exp... exploration and possible graft.
-P.A. Announcer
When screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr., another member of the blacklisted "Hollywood Ten," adapted Richard Hooker's satirical novel MASH, no one expected the film's virtually unknown director to bring anything unusual to the table. Robert Altman had been toiling in Hollywood for years on TV shows like Bonanza, and Combat! But it wasn't until he accepted an offer to direct Lardner's script that he began making his mark in cinema. Most only know of M*A*S*H from its long-running television series incarnation starring Alan Alda. Very few realize that it was originally a film directed by the now legendary director. The dark comedy is a lot zanier and looser than the comedy-drama that ran on TV. It follows the medics of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Two of the principal protagonists, Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Capt. "Trapper" John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), lead the charge in creating madcap pranks that help ease the natural tension and monotony that can arise in the hurry-up-and-wait environment of a mobile military hospital. The objects of their comedic torture are usually straight-laced career military officers that condescend towards them or their cohorts, people like Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) or Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Fans of the series who always wondered where the beloved "Hot Lips" Houlihan got her nickname would be surprised by its obscene origins as presented in the film. During a nighttime tryst with Burns, which ends up being broadcast over the P.A. by Trapper John, Houlihan is heard passionately telling Burns, "Oh, Frank, my lips are hot. Kiss my hot lips." This is but one of the taboos the film so deliciously revels in poking fun at. But surgeons Trapper John and Hawkeye are as talented in the OR as they are at busting chops. Scenes of hilarity are mashed up (pun intended) next to blood-soaked scenes of operating room carnage. Altman's aim is to demonstrate that as undignified or downright profane the doctors' antics are, all of it pales in the shadow of the war that serves as the story's backdrop. The ultra-liberal Altman hoped to comment on the war raging in Vietnam at the time of M*A*S*H's release, largely by ignoring its Korean setting in anything but a handful of references. He attains a level of realism seldom found in even dark comedies by applying techniques which would later become the director's hallmarks. Verisimilitude is achieved by having the characters step on each others dialogue the way natural conversation occurs in life. Performances (by many of Altman's repertory cast working with him here for the first time) are obviously improvised, but still directed to support the story, giving the comedy a streak of insanity that never descends into chaos. And his innovative use of the zoom in the otherwise dull-looking cinematography helps the director focus our attention on any of the multiple goings-on taking place in each densely layered scene. Tying all of the nonsense together are non-sequitur P.A. announcements reportedly transcribed verbatim from real announcements made during the Korean War. M*A*S*H is the type of film that has so much going on that one can always find something new in the margins. M*A*S*H made its debut on Blu-ray earlier this month. While most of the Special Features are direct port-overs from the original 2001 two-disc DVD, there is a great interactive guide one can play during the film to keep its voluminous cast of characters straight. Don't expect any edge enhancement because the Blu-ray is honoring Altman's original vision. The dull-edged cinematography with its hazy lighting was restored for the 2001 DVD, but it has never looked better than it does on Blu-ray. As one of the most important and beloved of American films, M*A*S*H is worth adding to your Blu-ray collection.

7 comments:

J.D. said...

Love this film and am a HUGE Altman fan. I really like the chemistry between Gould and Sutherland. I believe in one of the extras it's mentioned that early on during principal photography, the 2 actors had no idea what Altman was doing and tried to get him fired! Fortunately, that didn't happen and they went on to make a great film... and Gould would team up with Altman several more times.

Tony Dayoub said...

To follow up on your anecdote, rumor has it Gould ended up apologizing to Altman, but Sutherland never did, and hence he and Altman never collaborated again.

J.D. said...

heh! Now, that part I did not know. Oh well, Sutherland's loss... Look at what Gould and Altman produced as a result of subsequent collaborations...

The Mad Hatter said...

Wow, another blog that I follow wrote about M*A*S*H this week too. "Birds of a feather..."

I wonder, am I the only person who loves this film but doesn't care much for the television series?

Adam Zanzie said...

Though M*A*S*H is awesome, it is also arguably a canidate for Altman's most overrated. A few fans would say that it's his best film, and because of that popular majority opinion I almost didn't watch the rest of Altman's films after seeing it. The film does have the multicharacters and the overlapping dialogue and everything else in between- yet M*A*S*H, whilst a great film, is hardly representative of Altman at his most blazing. I actually prefer Quintet (1979) by comparison.

Tony Dayoub said...

Adam, again you fail to put the film in its proper context. It's not that M*A*S*H is Altman's best film. Many love Nashville, and my own personal preference is The Long Goodbye (Quintet is such an oddball choice from left field that I continue to stick to my theory that you are contrarian who simply likes to provoke commentary by going against the grain, since many would agree that it's one of his most flawed works). M*A*S*H was simply the FIRST of his films in which the veteran TV director's penchant for overlapping dialogue, improvisational acting, and freestyle use of camera techniques such as the zoom, coalesced to create his now familiar style.

The film was a trailblazer simply because it was the first "Altman" film in his filmography.

Adam Zanzie said...

Oh no, I completely agree with you about Nashville, which to date I consider to be his masterpiece; Short Cuts and 3 Women are two other strong contenders. And I still think that M*A*S*H is a great film, but it's hard not to be annoyed by the fact that it still holds the reputation as Altman's most famous film.

If I consider Quintet a superior work, that may be because I find it, well... richer. Altman is experimenting more. It's a wonderous followup to 3 Women, and although I still crave Altman's overlapping dialogue/multicharacter side, part of me does wish that he had made more surrealist films at the same time.

About your suspicion that I might only be making the M*A*S*H/Quintet comparison out of a temptation to defy the majority rule, I will confess that I haven't explained myself too well. Let's use a filmmaker like Huston, for example: The Maltese Falcon was his breakthrough film, and yet by comparison I actually prefer The Misfits, one of his most heavily criticized. It's not so much a result of wanting to have a special opinion as it is a result of which film provokes the thoughts more. In that sense, M*A*S*H is generic Altman, while Quintet is Altman going out on a limb, taking risks, destructuring not only science fiction but also the definition of the visual medium in the process.