Sunday, July 13, 2008

Film #64: M.A.S.H.

1970's M.A.S.H. had a bottomless effect on me long before I actually got to see it. Imagine being an intelligent nearly seven-year old movie addict and going with his extra-cool parents to the Atlanta's space-agey North-85 Drive-In concession stand around, oh, say, 1973. And, week after week, as you wander amongst the Alice Cooper and Kung Fu pinball machines while your dad orders the movie snacks, you find this unforgettable yellow poster prominantly affixed to the wall:

What an arresting image, this hand shooting us the peace symbol with a woman's legs smartly attached to its haunches, and a little brain-bucket on the fingers. And the simple, impassioned reviews (which I then understood, somehow).

I was, whoa, like, "What is THIS?!?!" I was strongly impacted by this image's double meaning: peace and love and? war. And the insistant sexuality poking right out there on my face really got to me, too. The bottom half of that hand really looked like a woman's ass, even to my inexperienced eyes (so much so that cream-puff newspaper ads, I later discovered, superimposed fake "pants" on the "ass" in question). I think this image--a product of marketing, I assume, if not Altman's vision, which seems much more believeable--has in my mind rocketed past all other market-driven images to deeply affect even my own political and social beliefs! How 'bout that, modern drivel-based marketing drones?!

Alas, I never saw M.A.S.H. in its entirety until I was much older--like 19 or so. As a pre-teen, I remember being in the backseat of my parent's car as we were watching it, but I guess I couldn't grasp its treasures as a kid, so I inevitably fell asleep. God bless my parents, they were so understanding! I don't know how I got so lucky, really! Here I am, begging Lynn and Buddy to see this movie they didn't like at all (and it was always a second feature, mind you). Man, they had to've been mystified as to what they had on their hands kid-wise, this little 8-year-old guy who wanted to see Robert Altman's first major film. They probably watched me fall asleep at least seven times in the 1970s as I tried to take in M.A.S.H. Ahhh, now that I ruminate on it, it was probably a blessing to 'em (though I was a notoriously quiet baby).

But I stuck to my effort to see M.A.S.H., and dutifully discovered that the great American autuer Robert Altman had found his breakthrough film in this brilliant comedy adapted by Ring Lardner Jr. from Richard Hooker's controversial book (which holds a near-record as the most publisher-rejected classic novel of all time). M.A.S.H. stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as, respectively, Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce and Captain "Trapper" John McIntyre. They are two surgeons for a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit stationed smack dab in the middle of the 1950s' Korean War. M.A.S.H. follows them and their fellow enlistees as they fight war-torn death, disease, and boredom with grand pranks and cutting one-liners that assault the viewer at every turn (Lynn, my mother, told me she was sickened by the movie for years because it reminded her of the Vietnam footage she was seeing on the nightly news at that time, and she couldn't understand then how surgeons could make fun of such horror).
The episodic structure of the film (which may account for the Oscar given to Ring Lardner for his often discarded screenplay) and the chaotic direction (now an Altman staple) were quite new for 1970 and still today are fresh and exciting. Altman's use of sound grabbed particular attention, as it was arguably the first popular film since Howard Hawks' 1930s heyday to have numerous main characters talking over each other so that the viewer has to follow several conversations simultaneously (Altman lorded over the sound board, raising and lowering individual microphone levels as the actors improvised a lot of their dialogue).

An immense box-office success, M.A.S.H launched the careers of virtually everyone in it. Sutherland, Gould and Robert Duvall (as Frank Hackett) became 1970s superstars; Sally Kellerman, as Lt. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, gained an Oscar nomination (in my opinion, largely because she dared to do full-frontal nudity in one of the film's key scenes); and Gary Burghoff, the only actor to make the transition, went on to win an Emmy in the role of Corporal "Radar" O'Reilly in the smash hit TV series based on the movie. For you who are sorely uninitiated, here's the first few minute of the movie. Imagine being use to square stuff and then seeing THIS!Made during the think of the Vietnam War, M.A.S.H. was notorious for being a war movie (or an anti-war movie) in which only one shot was fired (see if you can spot it!). And you gotta love that loudspeaker--it's a real character unto itself, and provides the movie with one of the best credits sequences ever. Along with composer Johnny Mandel, Altman's son Mike wrote the searing lyrics to the movie's theme song "Suicide is Painless" (still one of the most neglected movie songs not to get a Best Song Oscar nomination). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing.
Finally, the unparalleled cast: Tom Skerritt, Jo Ann Pflug, John Schuck, Roger Bowen (extremely funny as Lt. Henry Blake), Michael Murphy, G. Wood, Carl Gottlieb (who later wrote Jaws and The Jerk), the film debut of "Blaxsploitation" superstar Fred Williamson, David Arkin, Bud Cort (who later did Harold and Maude), and even football great / That's Incredible! host Fran Tarkenton make impressions. You gotta see M.A.S.H., if you haven't already. Trust me, it's fun and bizarre.

And now I pay tribute to the long lost Robert Altman. In a most unusual way, I found out Altman died on November 20th, 2006. I was wandering around the yellow lights of New York, considering moving back up to NYC from Atlanta. I called my then-girlfriend Stephanie, a supportive and strong lady. Things were not going so well for me, but she still rightfully informed me that Robert Altman had died. She had been with me when I bought Patrick McGilligan's excellent biography of the great filmmaker, so she knew of my deep love for him. When I received the call, I was on the New York streets, right in front of the Lincoln Center fountain where so many of Altman's masterpieces (including Nashville) had premiered as part of the New York Film Festival. I could not believe this picturesque, incredibly well-staged stroke of fate. And so I long cried and cried for Bob, the director, in 2006, right there in the middle of New York City.


Stacy said...

I was just looking at filmicability and reading your thoughts on M*A*S*H. It must be an age thing because it's one of the first two "grown up" movies I remember being taken to see as a child (the other being "Bananas"). My aunt Nancy took me with her and several friends to see M*A*S*H - I was fascinated and hooked! I wound up seeing it at least two more times once with my mother and with my dad. Both of these films had a huge impact on my childhood. Tommy was another one for me - I used to sneak down to the basement in the middle of the night and listen to Tommy on scrambled cable.

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