Saturday, August 8, 2015

AFI Top 100: #54 "MASH"

Elliott Gould, Sally Henderson, & Donald Sutherland in MASH (1970)

Don't be confused, the American Film Institute did not put one of the most beloved shows ever to air on television among its Best of Cinema... Nope, coming in at #54 is the film on which that show was based: MASH, directed by Nashville culprit, Robert Altman. While my distaste for that country music satire is palpable, I'm less sure about Altman's Korean War comedy. For the first time in this series, I'm letting my frienda frequent movie night attendeedescribe how we all felt about it. In the words of Mr. Matt R-K...

"Watch the zany antics of four army doctors in the Korean war! Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Tapper (Elliott Gould) make fun of the ridiculous Japanese 'Ranguage,' giggle uncontrollably when their friend comes out of the closet and wants to attempt suicide, and finally, assault, humiliate, and sexually blackmail... well, everyone. 

It's been 45 years since this film was released and it has Not. Aged. Well. The point of the film was to show how hippie counterculture overcomes the rigid and callous militarythe "establishment," if you will. However, watching this movie in 2015, I can't help but feel that the white, male doctors aren't the lovable underdogs, and are instead Blackwater-esque, sexual predators.

Final Verdict: A great film about horrible people." I couldn't have said it better myself.

The pacing of the movie doesn't help its case. The first third is purposefully muddled, with nearly all of the dialogue improvised and characters talking over each other with no regard to anything at all. This is funny as a running gag between Radar (Gary Burghoff) and Col. Blake (Roger Bowen), who speak unintelligibly to one another while the other does the same, but their dialogue is much more intentional with the humor linked to the confusion. But when everyone in camp is doing it, even the one-shot extras, it's infuriating and humorless. Frankly, it's a recipe for audience check-out.

The last two-thirds of the movie change considerably from the opening, and it's here where you begin to see the delightful qualities, both in situational comedy and in character, that prompted the creation of the long-running and beloved television series. The messy foundation shifts into something episodic, broken up into vignettes of shenanigans, like Tapper and Hawkeye's jaunt to Japan to save lives and play golfor the football game between camps where each team brings in a ringer. One-off, stand-alone, engaging comedy bits that make you chuckle at its silliness without investing too heavily one way or another.

It's pretty damn impossible to ignore the misogyny though, not to mention forget that the constant sexual humiliation of 'Hot Lips' (Sally Kellerman) is meant to be funny, not poignantly telling of the anti-female culture. It wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so abrasive, so destructive, and so horribly traumatizing. But hey! According to Altman's world, one must commit to harassment in the workplace, because eventually the victims will come around! To say I shook my head in dismay more than once is an understatement. But I certainly felt shame when I laughed, and so will you.

This film truly is about people who are part of the problem. But it's funny. Really funny at times, in fact. The television show managed to take these same characters and, given the time required to develop rich, three-dimensional characters, turned a band of petty assholes into complicated renegades. Altman's film isn't granted the gift of time. Two hours of cinema can't stand up against 11 years of television when it comes to character development, and it's never been more apparent than it is here.

Rating:  ★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © 20th Century Fox]

Check back next time for #53 on the list, The Deer Hunter — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!


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