Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Monday, October 12, 2015
A Position Of Responsibility
Maybe friendship is impossible in the end. I suppose all we can really do is accept that some of them are transitory, that some people just aren’t going to be around forever and maybe that’s for the best. Life has to keep moving forward, after all.
Trying to please someone else can be the enemy of creativity as well as the enemy of freedom. You need the freedom to do otherwise, to not give a shit about what anyone is going to say or think about it. Easier said than done sometimes, of course. There are always going to be idiotic opinions out there. But there’s also going to be that crippling fear from deep down inside that can prevent you from writing a coherent sentence. That can be the worst fear of all, the kind that can strangle your insides late at night while you can’t fall asleep. Likewise some of the very best films are effused with the feel of that burst of creativity that somehow anything is possible. “I wish I could be this free,” I wrote of Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in THE LONG GOODBYE for this blog nearly six years ago. A lot has happened in my life since then and I wish I could say that I felt like I’d gotten an inch closer to that feeling. It is possible, however, that the cult of Robert Altman has grown even stronger in that time. Criterion has released NASHVILLE on Blu, I’ve actually had multiple people ask me when the same is going to happen to McCABE & MRS. MILLER (like I would know), the not-easy-to-see CALIFORNIA SPLIT which also deserves to be on Blu has gotten renewed acclaim and “THE LONG GOODBYE is Popular Again” proclaimed a headline in The New York Times last year leading me to wonder exactly when it hadn’t been. I’m fairly certain that even QUINTET has a cult by now and I’m tempted to write about that one simply out of the sheer perversity of the idea.
MASH, of course, was too big a hit when it was released to ever get the chance to be considered a cult film and it long ago stopped being something that was only thought of in the context of Robert Altman. That’s unavoidable, really—even if it isn’t the syndication powerhouse it once was the now-classic TV version of MASH has long since become one of those comfortable old chairs to sit down in late on a Sunday night. That’s not the case with the movie and Robert Altman was never one to make a film actually seem comfortable. Long since eclipsed by the show, not to mention other Altman films, and much more of a broad comedy than his films often are it’s possible that the concept we think of as “MASH” has become so ubiquitous that the film has somehow become underrated if not simply dismissed. It may not have been his first film but it’s just about the first one we think of as a ‘Robert Altman’ film, the one where he planted his flag in the ground once and for all. Maybe there are some growing pains in there but even if it isn’t his best or most enjoyable in its own unfettered way it feels like one of the most freewheeling, undiluted forms of Robert Altman Cinema that we ever got.
It’s not that there’s even really a plot but you know the plot anyway: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould, with giant mustache) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arrive at the 4077th M*A*S*H unit during the Korean conflict and from the very first minute treat nothing and no one with any form of seriousness or respect with the exception of their jobs of course, trying to ignore the insanity of the war and the military all around them. Looking back at the film now, without the context of Vietnam that was so all-important when it came out, it plays as the birth of a new genre: Altman. It also comes off as a rough version of the series that the entire planet is familiar with by this point, which I suppose it is, with an episodic feel to its narrative, almost mini-sitcom episodes that are held together by the famous P.A. announcements (certainly lifted for the similar running gag in MEATBALLS and probably something else I’m forgetting). It really does feel like some sort of late 60s underground comedy that got produced at a major studio almost by accident and became a big hit when no one was looking.
The legend of MASH (of course titled M*A*S*H everywhere else in the world but in the actual film) is well known by now, based on the book by the pseudonymous Richard Hooker (which I read a hundred years ago, so memories are vague) and with a screenplay credited to Ring Lardner Jr. who won the film’s sole Oscar even though barely anyone gave it a second glance while they were shooting the thing. Robert Altman was hardly the first choice for the job and was willing to take advantage of how the studio was supposedly distracted by their other, bigger, war films—PATTON and TORA, TORA, TORA. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould supposedly didn’t trust their director at first and tried to get him removed. Many of the other actors were first-timers, left to run wild under Altman’s direction on the set in Malibu Creek State Park (I imagine BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES filming over the hill at the same time) and as chaotic as the production may have been the finished product was a smash beyond what anyone would have expected. It also quickly became legendary for beating Mike Nichols’ much more expensive CATCH-22 to the screen by several months—the unfavorable New York Times review of MASH (Kael and Ebert liked it considerably better) when it opened in January 1970 even refers to that one as “the legendary unfinished movie”—it finally came out that June and Altman, the one who wound up with a hit movie, hung a banner in his office reading “Caught-22”.
Even now, the Altman-ness that is obvious in almost every frame of MASH is overwhelming, the sometimes half-heard overlapping dialogue is so prevalent that we need to focus in order to keep up with that action with a feel so chaotic that his legendary lack of interest in the script (and I imagine the book as well; he certainly never had much good to say about the show) is always evident. While watching it for the umpteenth time I still find myself noticing actors on the edges of the frame doing something unheralded. To call MASH offensive (or misogynistic or blasphemous or whatever other element you want to obsess over) almost seems to be missing the point as it’s the rare film that says Fuck You to the humorless establishment and can back up its own viewpoint. You’re going to make us stay in this hellhole, it’s basically saying, this is the way it’s going to be. For a little while, anyway. The “regular Army clowns” are beneath contempt, especially the hypocritical Frank Burns who seems to represent Nixon or just the overall Republican establishment in general (H. Richard Hornberger, the real Richard Hooker, described himself as a conservative Republican; Altman and what we think of as the later Alan Alda-controlled years of the TV show feel like different angles from the left), helpless to it all as the camp essentially becomes a drunken sex club run by a commanding officer who isn’t a flake so much as totally apathetic to just about everything that happens.
According to the film, there’s no reason why there are casualties beyond the basic stupidity of war but it’s not anti-war as much as anti-military, anti an establishment that hasn’t earned to right to say otherwise. Back home has to be forgotten about—Hawkeye even tells one nurse that of course he’d rather be making love to his wife and Roger Bowen’s Henry Blake makes it a point not to include that word when he’s talking who sent his new jacket. Nothing matters but the particular moment, an idea made clear by having Dago Red (the film’s nickname for Father Mulcahy) help out at a crucial moment instead of giving the last rites to a soldier who’s already expired—one’s dead, one’s alive and the difference needs to be clear. It cuts through the shit just as well as the nurse who helpfully asks, “How do you want your steak cooked?” to Trapper. It really can be just that simple if everyone works together. Because if you don’t take part in that you’ll just wind up like Bobby Troupe’s bitter sergeant (“Goddamn Army”) who gets to do nothing but drive Hawkeye and Trapper around Tokyo as they act like schmucks. If only it could always be that simple. And, really, it should be.
The offensiveness of MASH is unavoidable feels more anti-hypocrisy than sexist or anti-religion. There are no sacred lambs since nothing is sacred. If the war is going on with blood spurting from the necks of soldiers than nothing can be, just as Hot Lips needs to realize that she isn’t any more sacred than everyone else, that she’s just like them. The most horrific action towards her oddly gives her more of a chance at redemption than the reprehensible Frank Burns (Robert Duvall, who seems to become Burns to an almost unnerving degree) ever gets. His devotion to religion is just as open as Dago Red but there’s something hypocritical about it—the actual chaplain is almost one of the gang in comparison, maybe because they can tell he’s coming at it from a genuine place; he speaks the same language they do and never tries to present himself as a saint but he’s the real deal and they recognize that. Maybe people don’t always recognize that in MASH--several months back the film played on TCM and I decided to check out the TCM Party hashtag to see what people were saying. It was a holiday weekend, a Sunday night, and I was surprised to find that as the film went on things were getting testy, that some people were complaining about the sexism and how horrible the film was because of that. Nothing was resolved, nothing was settled, life went on and those unfamiliar Twitter accounts disappeared, probably muttering “Goddamn Army.” The Frank Burns of the world, the ones that make it impossible to get anything done.
Since the film feels like the very beginning of what we know as the Altman style there’s a willful immaturity in that freedom that is absolutely undeniable and the occasional ‘movie movie’ dramatic stings aren’t too far off from Mike Nichols using “Also Sprach Zaratusta” in CATCH-22, actually. The brief snatches of flashback and flashforwards add to the collage feel, almost as if the events of the film are being remembered by Hawkeye in 1970. The film remembers what has to be remembered and even ignores the worst thing that happens, a plot line the final film leaves dangling—one quick scene near the end has the gang playing poker ignoring, but stealing quick glances at a body being driven away in the background, which some accounts say in deleted footage was the houseboy Ho-Jon who was earlier removed to fight and later returned as a casualty. Even if we don’t know who it is, we can see that they’re turning their backs on it. It may be cruel to the dead but in order to get to the next time they have to save one of them it’s necessary.
MASH feels scrappy, almost as if the grubby look comes from bad film stock while the other films got the good stuff. It goes by in a flash—considering how a TV show got 11 seasons out of this scenario it’s surprising to remember how the film seems to abandon the pretense of even being about the camp sometime after the halfway point, particularly with the Tokyo trip and drawn out football game. Each time I see it I wish it could be longer, so some of those good times could go on longer—I guess if I want that there’s always the show but, of course, not really. It’s willing to cross over the border in ‘borderline offensive’ more than a few times and absolutely gleeful about doing so (now the dubbing into Japanese when Hawkeye and Trapper are driven past the golf course, that’s pretty juvenile stuff). It might be cruel but maybe less cruel than sending people off to war and what people get upset about in MASH says something about what they’re willing to get upset about in the world.
When someone’s departure orders come in and it’s time to leave there’s not very much for anyone to say. Just like the end of a friendship. I’ve been watching CALIFORNIA SPLIT lately because MASH isn’t the only Altman I look at, after all, and I can’t help but think that these two featuring Elliott Gould along with THE LONG GOODBYE in the middle form a trilogy about the impossibility of friendship how it can be impossible to keep those plates spinning without certain resentments boiling over eventually. Even with Tom Skerritt’s Duke getting shunted off to the side for the Hawkeye-Trapper double act (like the first best friend at college who gets a little forgotten when the cooler guy shows up) MASH is the most frivolous, which makes sense, there’s not enough time for anything to come to a head which happens between Phillip Marlowe and Terry Lennox, then with George Segal’s Bill and Elliott Gould’s Charlie in SPLIT. In MASH it’s all cut off abruptly which is almost as painful. “I knew that all this was too good to last,” is a key line in Bogdanovich’s THEY ALL LAUGHED which feels like one that could easily appear here as well. Compared with the Altman that had yet to come MASH is minor and maybe almost too juvenile at times. But it’s also fearless in every single frame. It all ends before they want it to, before we want it to. But as we can tell the last time we see Radar (this incarnation of Radar, of course) a piece of that spirit that Hawkeye brought to the 4077th survives.
That freedom is there in the double act of Sutherland and Gould, each playing off the other beautifully as a true extreme of cool and a comedy team that was maybe only possible viewed through the Altman prism—the only other film the two made together was Irvin Kershner’s S*P*Y*S released in 1974 which may not be quite as bad as its rep but it’s no MASH. Going through all the inspired moments by the large cast may require mentioning everyone named in the large cast—some of them wind up jumping out at me when I’m seeing the film again and I wind up just watching for them during that viewing. Certainly Sally Kellerman, Oscar nominated for playing Hot Lips (her last name seems to be either Houlihan and O’Houlihan depending on the actor talking) and as brilliant as she is in her legendary breakdown to the uncaring Henry Blake some of her best moments are behind that surgical mask, her hugely expressive eyes revealing what’s going on and what’s really important in this insane asylum masquerading as a hospital. Roger Bowen sends himself into a beautifully zen state as Henry Blake, Rene Auberjonois brings utter goodness to Dago Red and David Arkin as Staff Sergeant Vollmer (also “I can remember when people just had jobs” in THE LONG GOODBYE) lurks around the edge of the frame in what may be countless scenes, forever befuddled and unsure what’s really expected of him. Michael Murphy’s appearance during the Tokyo segment is brief but feels important in part of making it the first ‘Altman’ film. Sometimes the little things are important.
And, yes, there’s the series that followed a few years later which the director had no involvement in, the one that a friend of mine who of course prefers the film and shall go unnamed here recently observed, “Watching that show always makes me feel like I’m being molested by my uncle.” Of course, that’s the very thing I’m going to think of whenever I flip by it here on out and I hope that would please Robert Altman. I’ll admit that I like the show better than she does in the way of that comfortable old chair I described earlier but for me MASH the film cuts deeper and is always weirdly life-affirming in a way that is sometimes exactly what I need. It’s nasty, it’s immature and yet it’s gaining for me as the years go on—it goes by in a flash, Hawkeye and Duke are sent home, probably before they’d prefer deep down and it reminds me of how much life is transitory. Friendships end before you’re ready. They bring you these moments that always stay with you but you can’t hold on to them. It’s impossible. A reminder that the game of life is hard to play and I’m going to lose it anyway, but fuck it, you know? I have to do something, to try for a few of those moments myself. That is all.