M*A*S*H (1970) (R)

It's impossible to criticize the cultural landslide effect that "M*A*S*H" had on and after its release. Based on the book by Richard Hooker, this screwball-comedy-meets-political-commentary surrounds the doings of a Korean War field hospital. Inspiring one of the most successful and popular television series to date, "M*A*S*H" is one of Robert Altman's highest achievements of film.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the director's other work includes "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" because based on visual style alone, you could make the comparison, and I did...pleasantly surprised, I might add (oh god, self-aggrandizing is the worst...contradictory on top of everything else). The low-light, nitty-gritty and sexualized overtones of the film fall right into Altman's wheelhouse though with "M*A*S*H" he finds himself at the helm of a much more controversial vehicle than even a movie about whores.
"M*A*S*H" begins as Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) gets transferred to his new station along with Captain Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). The two stop and eat lunch after pissing several men off and start flirting with the lieutenants.
At one point a character states: "I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps!" The response: "He was drafted." This sums up the entire philosophy of the movie. There is no reverence for any for of hierarchy whatsoever and you'll be hard pressed to find a moment in "M*A*S*H" that isn't rife with political incorrectness. Still, the movie's irreverence is for a purpose and its humor pokes through all the dreadful and sometimes wince-worthy jokes...most of which are played out at the expense of a woman.
Altman's movie isn't strictly misogynistic, but it definitely is flirting with the definition of it. Here's why that's forgivable: the woman who is targeted the movie, cheaply named "Hot Lips" after a night of passion is broadcasted to a group of men who hate her, is the system of bureaucracy defined. She embodies it, and that's why all the men hate her. She likes to do things by the book and finds companionship and the same mind in Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). These two elitists try to bring down the reign of fun and game in the field hospital and for that, they get mercilessly targeted.
"M*A*S*H" knows how to play with the ridiculous without seeming too far gone. Not many other movies could find humor in a situation in which a man who had erectile problems once, now convinced that he is a latent homosexual, plans on killing himself. That's a bit dark, even by today's "Family Guy" standard. Or how about a bet the men have on whether or not Hot Lips' natural hair color is blonde? Yeah, that scene is pretty insensitive to all parties included.
But the point of "M*A*S*H" is to see the war, the effort, and the hierarchy as a cosmic joke. It's laughably inept and gloriously faulted, that's what Altman is saying at least; and it says something for the audience of the time to respond so warmly to what could have been a grotesque failure of the cinema.
"M*A*S*H" not only went as far as the public wanted it to go, it went farther and it mocked what other movies were not willing to mock. That is why it has been immortalized and that is why it is classically great.
But more than just the sum of all its ideas, "M*A*S*H" is wickedly funny and sometimes just wicked, but enjoyable nonetheless. It proves a point about humor, about war, and about military. You may disagree with its ideas, but you can't disagree with the movie.

Score: ★★★½

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