Altman: MASH (1970)

In many ways, MASH is the film where Robert Altman’s directorial style congealed and coalesced into something that was all his own. Based upon the series of novels by Richard Hooker, the screenplay revolves around a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, during the Korean War. While this is Altman’s first true ensemble film, much of the story is relayed to us via a trio of surgeons – Hawkeye, played by Donald Sutherland, Trapper John, played by Elliott Gould, and Duke, played by Tom Skerritt, with Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall and Rene Auberjonois also present in an enormous and mercurial cast. The film was so successful that it spawned the television series M*A*S*H, which lasted for over a decade, as well as a series of spinoffs after that, most notably Trapper John, M.D, from 1979 to 1986.

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Altman’s film takes place at a unique moment in American military history, and at a unique moment in the representation of warfare in American cinema. In retrospect, World War II was the last war in American history that bred widespread consensus, and which could garner widespread consensus on the big screen. The social activism of the Baby Boomers, and the lessons of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, meant that war films couldn’t depend on the same level of cultural consensus in the post-war years, at least when they were made about conflicts happening in the present. In addition, while WWII cinema had depended on quite traditional gender roles, WWII itself had helped to stimulate feminism and sexual liberation by forcing women into the workforce while men were fighting on the front. The rise of identity politics during the Baby Boomer era meant that women and black folk were much more common in the military than before, making it even more difficult for the soldiers of WWII cinema to stand in for a universal subject as they had during WWII itself.

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At the same time, MASH was released before Vietnam, and resistance to Vietnam, had reached its apex. Caught between WWII and the Vietnam War, the film therefore occupies a strange position in which the masculine ideal of war has been decimated by WWII, but hasn’t yet descended into angst and paranoia either. This would turn out to be the perfect canvas for Altman to develop his trademark picaresque style, which here often depends upon many of the same shocks that galvanised post-war noir – the shock of seeing women in the workplace, the shock of seeing black people in the workplace, and the shock of having to contend with a different kind of battle on the home front, the battle of identity politics, along with the military battles being fought abroad. Yet while MASH comes from a similar place as noir, it deals with their shared anxieties in a much broader, more comic register, often recalling Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove in its view of the absurdity and anarchy of war.

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Stuffed full with jaunts, pratfalls and slapstick scenarios, it’s not surprising, then, that MASH led to one of the most beloved sitcoms of the 70s, since Altman’s style doesn’t exactly establish so much as immerse us in the characters and situations it encounters, making us feel as if we’ve known them all for years, for better and for worse. While there are many different comic signatures, they all tend to converge upon screwball sonics, as Altman opts for overlapping planes of sound in which multiple people converse at cross-purposes. There’s very little in the way of conventional dialogue, as people talk over each other, or at each other, or else resort to barely-audible whispering that is immediately swallowed upon the ambience of the film as a whole. While a senior officer may make it his mission to teach a young Korean man to read, none of the Americans feel quite at home in the English language, or in the military itself, continually moving from one space to another as Altman opts to shoot scenes from a distance, or to focus on characters passing in the distance or background, defying the distinction between inside and outside needed for a camp to work.

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In the process, MASH makes you realise how instinctively cameras participate in the hierarchical structures of the military in Hollywood war dramas. By contrast, Altman’s approach is lateral, displacing us from the centre of the action until war seems to have waned as a transcendental signifier, losing its ability to absorb any and all meaning. Since the chain of command is about language as much as action, this dissolution leaves an unruly, messy, sonic plane in its wake, in which no single conversation has clear priority, and no utterance is able to assert itself in any lasting or authoritative way. All the roving animal instincts contained by war are unleashed, or at least more vivid, while all the characters are much more open about the sexual thrill of military power as well. Rather than operating according to a hierarchical command, the camp is driven and sustained by characters who cross boundaries and circumvent procedures, and tend to do so in an incidental, inadvertent or oblivious manner, rather than as a conscious gesture of resistance or a political gesture.

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That all produces a Bacchanalian porosity and promiscuity, replete with dirty jokes, toilet humour, nudie pictures, and the same irreverent sense of play that can be found in semi-legitimate softcore features released around this time. At its best, this situation is suggestive of a whole new social arrangement after WWII, as Altman’s trademark zoom-and-pans undo the authority of the military-industrial complex, replacing it with the power of improbable collaboration and collectivity, as when a nurse kindly scratches Hawkeye’s nose with a scalpel while he is sawing through a bone. These more utopian moments tend to take place during the surgical scenes, which is also where Altman’s ensemble approach is most intensified. Here, as throughout much of his career, the film settles into a kind of auteurist workplace drama, not unlike the documentary spirit of Frederick Wiseman, in which there are always multiple operations taking place at once, and all of the staff perform multiple roles, needing to be attuned to various planes of sound to process their overlapping voices.

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In these scenes, in particular, there is almost too much for a single film, so I could see why Altman’s vision quickly spawned a television series. The density of these scenes is only enhanced by the fact that none of the surgeons have much ideological conviction in the war, although MASH never descends into the nihilism or anarchy of Catch-22 either. Instead, the screwball sonics make Altman’s film an odd comedy of remarriage, as all of the characters have to learn to remarry, revalue and resume their pleasure in warfare itself. Divested of the pleasures of ideological enjoyment, they have to find a way to recover the enjoyment of ideology without ideology itself, which is perhaps why so much of MASH plays like the most venal frat film imaginable. Closer to American Pie than any WWII film I’ve seen, much of this could be a National Lampoon feature, since the key comic premise is that, without regulations and hierarchies, the sheer number of people in military space is inherently conducive to both voyeurism and frottage. To merely watch MASH is thus to spy on and sidle up to its main characters – or at least to spy on and sidle up to its feminine characters.

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Unfortunately, this frames assault as a kind of picaresque inevitability for women in the military, and a logical conclusion of the tight conditions of combat itself. Virtually all of the jokes are at the expense of women who presume to be taken seriously in the army, especially Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan, played by Sally Kellerman, who is the most picaresque and precarious prospect in the film – a blonde bombshell who would have been the love interest in a WWII drama, but is at the top of the pecking order here, and the only character who tries to speak in a military diction. From the outset, the soldiers set out to humiliate both her body and her voice, as in a horrific moment – hardly comic – in which they record her having sex and then play the recording back to the camp in real time. By contrast, the pranks on men are always vaguely complimentary, as when all the soldiers line up to peer on the most endowed amongst them, offering him tribute as part of their morning routine.

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Yet as this very ritual might suggest, the presence of women in the army functions to stimulate fears of emasculation that are, once again, very close to those of noir – fears that require the men to gather around their most emphatic phallic representative to maintain their sense of self. While Altman might present this unregulated phallic potency as carnivalesque, it’s also pretty sinister, since it’s not hard to see the start of an assault culture, and a resentment of women in the military, that continues right down to the present, however picaresquely it might be framed here. In the centrepiece of the film, the camp dentist, Painless, confesses that he suffers from impotence, and that he has lost his “Don Juanism,” confiding to a friend that “I’ve turned into a fairy, a victim of latent homosexuality,” before deciding to commit suicide to put himself out of his misery. Impotence, emasculation and homosexuality are all linked, and all seen as a stimulus to suicide, and while that might be a bit too absurd even for the film, Altman never fully discounts this figurative matrix either, or really challenges the toxic masculinity it involves.

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The closest he comes is the mock-suicide, and mock-funeral, that the men hold for Painless. During this sequence, one of them sings “Suicide is Painless,” the song that became the theme for both the film and the television series, and a staple in thousands of American households across the nation, breaking the distinction between diegesis and non-diegesis to suggest that this suicide and funeral is too enmeshed with the film’s own anxieties for Altman to be capable of any critical distance from it. As a result, this sequence is both a mockery of the film’s masculine anxieties, but also sincerely invested in those anxieties. On the one hand, Altman slyly associates these anxieties with traditional cinema, since the funeral coincides with the first sombre address of the film, the first use of a traditional mise-en-scene (the fog rolls in at just the right moment), the first static composition (Altman quotes Leonardo’s Last Supper) and the first and only tone that approaches a WWII drama. On the other hand, the whole sequence ends with Hawkeye coercing a nurse into sleeping with Painless to cure his impotence, and wake him from the dead, after which the men all conspire to collectively humiliate Hot Lips in the most outrageous and demeaning manner.

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In other words, MASH is self-aware about its preciousness, but even more precious for it, ultimately gesturing towards the limits of self-awareness itself as a countercultural mindset. At moments, that allows Altman to strain for a similar picaresque absurdity to Apocalypse Now – the sense that war has become a canvas for the most flamboyant, extravagant and depraved of human ambitions. Yet MASH is too immersed in the low-level ambience of a single environment to ever really reach Coppola’s sweep and extremity, while Vietnam hadn’t yet reached the peak of spectacle that would allow Coppola to craft such a nightmarish scope either. Only when helicopters arrive and leave does Altman come close to that circumambient absurdity, most memorably when a chopper curves around to avoid a soldier refining his golf swing who plays as a distant relation of Robert Duvall’s Bill Kilgore.

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Despite those moments, however, the film gets uglier as it proceeds. In one awful sequence, punctuated by Korean gongs, Trapper John parries a black woman with an umbrella before threatening to kick her out of the way with a mule; condescends to a head nurse as “mother” before instructing her to keep her nurses’ “tits” out of the way of his scalpel; and then demands the women on the hospital staff to make him some lunch. Smug, entitled and bratty, these characters feel like the counterculture at its worst, and made me long for the stoicism, pathos and rigour of WWII cinema. While military structure might have waned, it simply means that these men have less accountability than ever before, but even more assurance of their own charm. That makes a pretty humorless film, since anyone who doesn’t find them alluring is branded as humorless, in a perverse celebration of bullying, a determination to humiliate anyone who is different, all under the banner of counterculture.

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All of that culminates with the ending, which is both formally and ideologically ultra-conservative, and represents the point where Altman’s ensemble mentality starts to devolve into something more staid and familiar. This takes the form of an interminable football game, which is presented as an irreverent riff on American culture, but is really just business as usual, promulgating a sharp distinction between the team, the black man they have imported as quarterback, and the women relegated to the cheerleading squad. It’s the most normcore ending imaginable, but delivered with the slightest of arched eyebrows, as if that’s enough to make these characters likeable or original for basically enjoying all the pleasures and privileges that sustained American culture before them. It would be like watching American Pie if every character was also a surgeon, and smug in their assurance of saving lives, a stupid exercise in false consciousness that is also pretty turgid on its own terms, stretching out for twenty minutes like a subpar National Lampoon or Monty Python.

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In the end, I’d rather just watch a real NFL game than this kind of exercise, which makes it abundantly clear that the counterculture, at its worst, was just business as usual, but with mindfulness and self-awareness. While I’m not the hugest Zizek fan, this did remind me of his definition of late capitalist ideology – doing the same thing you always did, but congratulating yourself for being aware that you are doing it, and expecting the same congratulation from others in turn. That’s the conservatism of MASH, which cuts oddly and awkwardly against the fluidity of Altman’s vision, as this impoverished version of the counterculture would at various times in his career. At the end of the film, all the characters introduce themselves for the credit sequence, with the exception of Hot Lips, whose humiliation is replayed as the icing on the cake of this idiosyncratically positioned film, iconic and influential in so many ways, but ugly and pompous in so many other ways as well.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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