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random thoughts

June 19th, 2006 (06:09 pm)

A while back, some folks (musesfool, were you among them?) were talking about M*A*S*H, the TV series, and how the new DVDs of the early season sans laugh track came off as much crueler than they remember. Without folks laughing at the antics of Hawkeye and Trapper, it just seemed mean.

I hadn't seen the film in years, but I watched it the other day and realized two things: first, that my belief that Robert Altman is insanely overrated as a filmmaker was 100% correct; and second, it's a really uncomfortable movie to watch.

For one thing, it's not that funny. I laughed at the football game, and I laughed at parts of the trip to Japan, but most of the wisecracks aren't that good, and the main characters, with whom we're supposed to ride along, are incredibly unsympathetic and nasty. I wound up feeling horrible for poor Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan, who suffer terrible indignities for no real reason at all.

Sally Kellerman got so annoying and insufferable in later years that it's easy to overlook how good her performance in that movie was. On the page, her first scene with Hawkeye comes off with Houlihan being perfectly reasonable and Hawkeye being a sleazy, browbeating fool; the only reason you sympathize with Hawkeye even a little bit is Kellerman's splendid holier-than-thou reading; it fools you into disliking her character when there's absolutely no reason you should. Robert Duval doesn't sell Burns's unsympathetic side as well, and so I can't help but feel bad for him when Hawkeye starts making crude fun of him ten seconds after they meet just because Burns takes a little too long to pray. Later, Hawkeye complains that Burns is a poor surgeon, but we don't see anything to that regard; he is short with an untrained orderly who takes too long to bring the right tool after a critically injured soldier dies as a result, but that's not an utterly inconceivable reaction, and Houlihan, whom Hawkeye grudgingly admits is a good nurse, thinks Burns is excellent. The effect is that Hawkeye and Trapper set about making Burns's life hell without the audience coming to think that Burns deserves it; the movie makes you take Hawkeye's smug assumptions as gospel. But think about it: Burns's form of cultural imperialism is to use the Bible to teach a laundry boy to read; Hawkeye's is to get the kid to make him martinis. Who's the Ugly American here?

The movie doesn't have an arc, by design; it feels odd and disjointed, and you're dropped in and out of it much like Hawkeye is dropped in and out of the war. That's reflective of the setting, but it's in keeping with Altman's stiff filmmaking. Y'know who Altman reminds me of? Serious film buffs will consider this heresy: Blake Edwards. They've got talent, and they can make things happen, but they're really stodgy storytellers who confuse harassment with wit and self-indulgence with charm. Altman is An Important Filmmaker; Edwards just tries to amuse himself and make entertaining flicks along the way. But I know whose movies I'd rather see.)


Posted by: peeps wanna see peeps boink (musesfool)
Posted at: June 19th, 2006 03:00 pm (UTC)

I remember the conversation, though I haven't actually watched the dvds I got as a gift. But I wouldn't be surprised if the laugh track makes a huge difference.

It's been ages since I've seen the movie, but I don't recall liking it much when I did...

Posted by: Nos (nos4a2no9)
Posted at: June 19th, 2006 03:42 pm (UTC)

I had a lot of the same problems with the movie, particularily in the way Hoolihan is treated in that sequence when they collapse the female shower walls. I think that's one of the cruelist and most misogynistic scenes from any film - I felt like it was almost comparable to a rape scene. And the fact that we're supposed to laugh along and identify with Trapper and Hawkeye? No thank you.

I really appreciated what the series did, over time, as the writing and characterization for Hot Lips improved to the point where she was a three-dimensional, fully realized character rather than the Blonde Nemisis. I'm not sure if I would go so far as to dismiss Altman's powers as a director (his Gosford Park was brilliant work) but I think the M*A*S*H film is entirely a creature of its time, and it's a tough film for contemporary viewers to relate to.

Posted by: ~ (niqaeli)
Posted at: June 19th, 2006 06:46 pm (UTC)

While I adore the show I still have a lot of problems with the series itself--with its treatment of characters like Houlihan and Burns, but especially Houlihan, and while I've only seen a few minutes of them film, it seemed Hawkeye and Trapper had far more sympathetic portrayals in the series than the film.

I think one of the things that disturbed me most about Houlihan is that as they redeemed her in the eyes of Hawkeye and BJ, they also stripped her of her sexuality. It seemed that an awful lot of the mockery was aimed at her for being a woman in power daring to open her legs if she damned well wanted to... and the mockery went away only when she closed them up like a good little girl.

I always found Frank really very pitiable. He was a very terrified man, clinging to the structures of the Army as a lifeline, as the only thing that made any damn sense over there. In his family practice, he was probably a decent enough man, liked by his patients. He and Hotlips hung onto each other because they had no one else to hang onto over there, not with people like Trapper and Hawkeye making their lives a living hell, and their respective Issues fed nicely into each other.

M*A*S*H is not always comfortable to watch... And not just uncomfortable in the ways it was supposed to be.

The series, however, did have writers who understood humour--that we laugh because sometimes the only alternative is worse.

Posted by: mystavash (mystavash)
Posted at: June 19th, 2006 09:24 pm (UTC)

I officially stake out the counter position; I liked MASH. Never saw the movie, but I loved the show. Of course they are cruel. If they were perfect, what would be the fun, really?

The people in Will and Grace, for example, were all *awful* people, examined close, but hey, top ranked show for 8 years.

And cheaters deserve no sympathy. ;p

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