Sunday, November 21, 2010

M*A*S*H (1970): Directed by Robert Altman

When learning about the death of William Jennings Bryan, H. L. Mencken reputedly said, “We killed the son-of-a-bitch!”  The obituary that Mencken penned just one day after Bryan’s death was no kinder.  I can’t be so uncharitable to Robert Altman who has just died because I liked him as a director.  Frankly, I know little more about the man than what I have observed concerning his movies.  Still, much more will be said that may or may not be deserved.  Before we hear the usual gushing, let me predict what the nature of the eulogies will be.  It probably won’t be so interesting as what the writer from The Baltimore Sun had published eighty years ago.
In the next few weeks we will hear about Altman’s life, about his stint in the air force during World War II, about the television series he directed including Bonanza, Combat and Route 66, and about movies like Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park, Tanner ’88, and A Prairie Home Companion.  We will hear about his astonishing film techniques, his use of overlapping dialogue, the co-mingling of storylines, the chaotic narrations, etc.  All of this will be forgotten if not for the fact that he directed the movie M*A*S*HNashville is about a bunch of characters (about twenty too many) at a political rally with country music as the backdrop.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an excellent and offbeat western about a brothel owner with too much integrity to sell out.  Gosford Park is about English snobs and, one is almost tempted to say, Prairie Home Companion is a movie for American snobs – except that this is unfair since I’ve never seen Prairie Home Companion.*  These movies all varied in quality.  None were particularly big at the box office.  M*A*S*H was the one movie in which Altman tried to say something bigger and indicated that he was more than just a talented craftsman. 
Altman was the only director that dared take on the screenplay written by Ring Lardner, Jr.  Though anti-war sentiment had been going on for three years when this film was released in 1970, the anti-establishment slant of a war movie was something entirely new to the movie industry.  For those used to seeing the clowning of all of the characters on the television series, the hatred that the good guys and the bad guys had for each other in the movie had been ratcheted up in intensity about a dozen times over.  Not only did Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) thumb their noses at authority, they followed that disrespect up with sadism.  Hawkeye provokes Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) into a tirade that results in Burns being run out of the army in a straight jacket.  Trapper humiliates “Hot Lips” (Sally Kellerman) in front of all assembled in the operating room by references to her frigidity.  But Frank Burns, in particular, deserved the treatment that he received.  His Bible thumping and two-faced hypocrisy was not simple buffoonery – it was the sort of uptight sanctimony that resulted in people dying and being killed because it judged that some people were less deserving than others of living.
A friend of mine told me that even movies of Altman’s that were failures were interesting.  I’m not so sure about that.  Much of what followed M*A*S*H seemed irrelevant and Altman may have very well outlived his notability.  After being passed up five times for Oscars in the past, he finally received the Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 2006.  And in the end, we have Altman teaming up with Garrison Keillor and being lauded by Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin about what an honor it was to work with the great director.  (I wonder if we’ll hear the same praise if these individuals are ever teamed up with Roman Polanski.)
Still, Altman directed the movie M*A*S*H, and no one will ever be able to take that away from him.  Even if he sat on his laurels for the last thirty-five years of his life (which he did not), this one movie set the attitude for millions of movie viewers.  He for one time in his life anyway said what he thought needed to be said.  Many contemporary directors including Sam Peckinpah and Samuel Fuller I think were better at their craft.  In fact, I don’t think Altman even directed the best movie of his era because Patton and The Godfather came out at about the same time.  M*A*S*H was anything but a perfect movie.  While recently watching the film after not seeing it for a number of years, I noticed that some of the acting was wooden, that some of the gags were far fetched, and that there were more caricatures than real characters throughout much of the movie.  The football scene at the end goes on too long and distracts us from the real drama of the movie.  Yet this movie is irreverence at its best – at least as far as any movie has so far taken it.  Here Altman took on some extremely large targets and almost succeeded in skewering them.  Perhaps because of lost opportunities or because of a loss of nerve, Altman never succeeded in doing this again.  The remainder of his movies, no matter how artistically performed they were, were inoffensive and not nearly so entertaining or as potent as this movie.  M*A*S*H was one of the most important movies ever made.
* I heard a radio commentator this morning accuse Garrison Keillor of killing Altman.  The commentator was of the opinion that Altman committed suicide after finally getting a chance to see Prairie Home Companion in its entirety.  Again, I have not seen the movie so I am unable to comment on such rumors.
November 22, 2006
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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