Monday, March 26, 2007

Altmanathon Stop #1: M*A*S*H (1970)


This was Altman's first major critical and commercial success.

Fifteen other directors passed on the project before Altman took it on.

Stars Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould approached the producers during filming to try to get Altman fired from the film; Altman claims that if he'd known about this at the time, he would've quit (Sutherland and Gould now admit the error of their ways).

The film's screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., who won the film's only oscar, was reportedly disappointed in the film and upset by how much the director and cast had improvised and strayed from his script (he accepted his award nonetheless).

Altman is not a fan of the TV show.


1 Oscar (Best Adapted Screenplay)
5 nominations (including Best Picture, Director)

1 Golden Globe (Best Picture: Musical/Comedy)
6 nominations (including Best Director, Screenplay)

WGA award (adapted)
DGA award nomination

2 KCFCC awards (Best Director, Best Supporting Actress)
NSFC award (Best Picture)

5 BAFTA nominations (including Best Picture, Director)


Robert Altman's M*A*S*H was a tricky film to gauge. As I stated earlier, it's often hard for me to determine the worth of older films. Not only do I go in with a preconception of how good they're supposed to be (or how GREAT in some cases), but it's also hard to estimate what a film must've felt like to the critics and the public during the time of its original release. After all, things that were highly original, transgressive, or even revolutionary when first presented might feel dull and commonplace today. The very best films age like a fine wine, getting better or a least maintaining their grace with time, despite their being conceived during a particular period that has long passed. And while I wouldn't count M*A*S*H among those greatest of greats that only improve with age, it is still a very good film indeed, and much about it is timeless.

The story concerns a group of military surgeons on a base during the Korean War. But in truth, "story" is not the operative term here. Like most of Altman's films, the stars are the ensemble acting and the unique, organic tone, and not the story or narrative. There is growth and change in many of the characters, but that growth and change isn't really what the film is about. What the film is about is presenting a familiar situation in a brand new light, thus permitting the audience to grow and change by seeing the world in a new way.

The film reads as a series of vignettes, wherein these military surgeons deal with various crises and situations through humor, play, and a curious kind of camaraderie. Much has been said about the film's evocation of the Vietnam War through its presentation of the Korean War, and it's a credit to the film that one could easily see the Vietnam War (which was at its height during the film's release) in these scenes, despite specific references to their being in Korea. The film brings out the absurdity of any kind of war simply by showing those involved and how they deal with it (i.e. through humor). We see that the only way anyone can survive a long stay in this environment (while remaining sane and productive) is to forget where they really are and what they're doing, and try to have as much fun as they can. It comes off as immature and disrespectful to some, like Sally Kellerman's rigid Margaret O'Houlihan, but war - especially senseless war - is an immature and disrespectful business.

The audience is challenged with a bold perspective right from the first frames, where the beautiful and haunting vocal track "Suicide is Painless" (written by Robert Altman's son) is played over footage of wounded being whisked out of helicopters. Later, the doctors' brash, immature antics are contrasted with messy surgery scenes, where they act like they're repairing cars rather than people. And there's a distinct undertone of satire in even the most serious moments. Altman has stated that the film's success (it made a LOT of money on a very small budget, and went on to be nominated for oscars) was a vindication of both his politics and his filmmaking process, both of which ran the risk of being well ahead of their time.

I'll leave it to you all to discover the various individual scenes and character antics, since there are many, and I'm not even sure I properly appreciated all of them. M*A*S*H is not my favorite Altman. I didn't bond with the various characters the way I have in other films of his, and I don't think all the comedy holds up in 2007. The trademark Altman messiness and overlapping dialogue sometimes just felt like... well... messiness and overlapping dialogue. But the film has its moments of pure cinema, and blended seriousness and satire in a way no war film had yet dared to do. It was a bold statement in 1970 that struck a nerve with the industry and the public, and for that, I give it major props. It also announced the arrival of Altman as a major director, and gave him the opportunity to do all his subsequent films, and for that, I thank it profusely.

I invite everyone to encounter M*A*S*H and engage with it. Though I didn't love it the first time I saw it, it definitely improved on second viewing, and improved more still when I'd read more about it, listened to Altman's commentary, and thought of it in its historical context. M*A*S*H may not hold a place in my all-time favorites list, but it holds a distinctive place in film history, and is thought of by many as a classic. And with that, I won't argue. It's definitely a winner.

Next in the marathon: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

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I asked her how her night was and she said justfine and went upstairs to bed. Id have to bear tit in the middle of my own meal to shuthim up, regardless of who we might be entertaining.

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