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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Indie Pick o' the Day: MASH

Forget Alan Alda and Loretta Swit. Forget the laugh track, the transvestite Klinger and the comedic stylings of David Ogden Stiers. In the name of all that's holy, forget After MASH, which was to sitcoms what Treblinka was to Slavic partisans. Okay, now that you've cleared your mind...

When Richard Hooker's MASH came out in 1968, it was a revelation. Following in the ideological footsteps of Richard Heller's Catch-22, it covered the author's experiences as a doctor during the Korean war. Many of the characters hailed from New England prep schools and colleges, where they had pledged fraternities, played football, and generally followed the well-worn path of Northern preppies. In Korea, their activities, while playful, fit into the traditions of college pranking.

When Robert Altman made MASH two years later, he transformed his characters from being a familiar bunch of collegiate cutups into a diverse gang of countercultural heroes. Their actions, which had previously tweaked the nose of authority figures in a playful way, became distinctly anti-authoritarian. From the first scene, in which a gang of lower-level bureaucrats get into a fist fight in a huge mud puddle, to the depiction of Army officers as either useless, malevolent, or downright psychotic, the movie is distinctly aimed at the perspective of a lower-level grunt who finds himself inducted into the military. In this context, Altman clearly intended Mash as a commentary on Vietnam, and he followed that impulse into some of the smallest details, even dressing peasants in traditional Vietnamese garb.

Although Altman acceeded to the studios' demand and opened the film with a coda that clearly placed it in Korea, his other impulses, thankfully, managed to make their way to the screen. His cast is a veritable who's who of future stars, including Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, and Robert Duvall. He heavily spiced the film with blasphemous references, notably the Painless Pole's Last Supper-influenced suicide, as well as heavy amounts of sex, nudity, and a hitherto-unheard of amount of blood and gore.

Beyond the groundbreaking combination of comedy and horror, the film also marked the beginning of the famous Altman style. All of the elements of his latter films are here, including overlapping dialogue, long-distance close-ups, and naturalistic settings. The music is, largely, environmental, which enables the viewer to truly fall into the story. One unfortunate exception is the mawkish, sophomoric theme song, "Suicide is Painless," which was written by Altman's son.

When the movie was being filmed, the cast and crew had no idea how it could possibly be transformed into a coherent narrative; quitting in anger, the scriptwriter, Ring Lardner Jr., publicly disassociated himself from the film, although he later accepted a best adapted screenplay Oscar for his work on it. However, Altman managed to weave a compelling story out of the scattered elements that he created, laying the groundwork for his creative process in subsequent films, including the amazing Nashville. Whether as a groundbreaking technical achievement, a political watershed event, a masterful advance in cinematic storytelling, or simply as one of the definitive works of an American auteur, MASH is a film that is definitely worthy of study.

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