Tuesday, March 09, 2010

 

Old Altmans never die (or fade away)


Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see...

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.


NOTE: Ranked No. 86 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
It began life as a novel by Richard Hooker, then Robert Altman transferred MASH into a movie and made his reputation. Later, Larry Gelbart transformed that film into a television comedy and made it a landmark series, adding the asterisks to the title M*A*S*H. Altman's film had its New York premiere in January 1970, but back in those days of slow, platform releases, there was no one day when it spread to the rest of the U.S. at once. The best I can find is that it was in March, so I pick today to mark the movie's 40th anniversary.


I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it's too late, and...

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

When Johnny Mandel's theme played week after week on the CBS series for 11 seasons, I often wondered what it would have been like if they'd kept Altman's son's Mike's lyrics for "Suicide Is Painless" as well. The sitcom may have taken MASH as its essential template, but they had to draw the line somewhere. (Even an iconoclastic risk taker such as Altman had to let some things from the novel go that early in his career, so we weren't treated to scenes of Elliott Gould as Trapper John dressed as Christ, flying around Korea on a cross suspended from a helicopter and signing autographs to raise money for Ho-Jon's college fund.)

Still, Altman's movie certainly broke ground as far as war movies were concerned and definitely formed the initial portrait of what a Robert Altman film usually was like: large casts, overlapping dialogue using unusual recording techniques, largely plotless and when they worked, as they did with MASH, great films that changed the medium and that couldn't be mistaken as the work of another director. Watching MASH again for this piece, with its dizzying overheads of helicopters bringing the wounded to the 4077th, I thought of a comparison to another Altman opening for the very first time that came 23 years later: Short Cuts. Only in that instance, the helicopters weren't bearing the injured, they were spraying the injured with pesticide as part of California's battle with the Mediterranean fruit fly.

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
so this is all I have to say.

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.


People who know the 4077th only from the TV series will certainly recognize the essential elements in the Altman movie, but they also will discover quite a few differences that follow the novel more closely. Only one cast member from the movie became a regular on the series and that was Gary Burghoff repeating his role as Radar. While the series began basically as Hawkeye (the great Donald Sutherland in the film) and Trapper against the world, the movie had a third surgeon: Duke, played by Tom Skerritt. While many of the MASH characters share names with the M*A*S*H characters, in many areas they bear little resemblance. Hawkeye is a married man in the movie, not that it prevents his playing around, not Alan Alda's single lothario from the series. Robert Duvall's Frank Burns lives light years away from the buffoonish character Larry Linville grew tired of playing on TV. He's a strictly religious, nondrinker who is teaching Ho-Jon to learn English through the Bible. ("Were you on this religious kick at home or did you crack up over here?" Sutherland's Hawkeye asks Frank as he prays beside his cot.) That doesn't prevent Frank from falling prey his lust for Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). However, in the movie, Burns gets carted away early in a strait-jacket after a single prank.

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
and to another give my seat
for that's the only painless feat.

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

MASH is neither a conventional comedy nor a conventional war film and, since this a Robert Altman movie, you shouldn't expect a conventional climax either. Besides, in a film that is essentially untethered from any plot, how could there be? So, the big finish for the film's third act is anything but obvious: It's a football game (Shades of the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers). The 4077th gets challenged to a game by the commander of the 325th Evac. As General Hammond (G. Wood) tells Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) in proposing the game, football is one of the "best gimmicks to keep the American way of life going in Asia." Wood did re-create his role as Hammond in a couple of guest appearances in the early seasons of the TV series. In an eerie coincidence, when McLean Stevenson, the sitcom's memorable Henry Blake died, the following day Bowen died. It almost was like Bowen knew that his death would get little notice unless he piggybacked on Stevenson's as the other Henry Blake. Hammond, of course, has his own ringer, so Trapper and Hawkeye set out to obtain one for their team, a neurosurgeon named Dr. Jones who was better known in his college football days as Spearchucker Jones (the film debut of Fred Williamson). They try to brush off the racist nickname by having some ask him why he's called Spearchucker and having him answer that he used to throw the javelin. While I worship Altman, one thing I never quite understood was his insistence that the TV show was racist, specifically against the Koreans, but if anyone can notice any appreciable difference betweeen the film and TV show on that count, I'd love to hear the argument. One of the biggest cheerleaders for the game is Hot Lips and if I have a problem with the film, it's the quick and inexplicable conversion of the Margaret Houlihan character. She's introduced as a no-nonsense, by-the-book Army major, constantly being humiliated by the pranksters of The Swamp (and a wonderful Oscar- nominated performance from Kellerman). When Hawkeye first meets her, always out to put the make on some new female flesh, he gives it to her for putting him off his lust and that she's just a regular Army clown and he's going back to his tent to drink scotch. Houlihan vents her outrage to the film's Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois), known here as Dago Red, asking how someone so crass as Hawkeye could reach a position of responsibility in the Army. "He was drafted," the priest replies. When the gang exposes her shower and nudity to the camp, she has a breakdown to Henry, insisting that, "This is not a hospital, it's an insane asylum!" Then, before you know it, she's fooling around with Duke and playing cheerleader. It's odd, but it's still a minor criticism in an otherwise great film. (I'm just thinking off the top of my head, but has any great movie been turned into an almost equally great television show the way MASH was?)

The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger...watch it grin, but...

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

As I mentioned before, MASH is the first example of the Robert Altman ensemble that he'd become famous for and many of the actors who would become part of the unofficial Altman repertory company would make appearances here. Elliott Gould would follow his great work as Trapper John with similarly solid work in Altman's The Long Goodbye and California Split and would appear as himself in Nashville and The Player. Skerritt returned to Altman for Thieves Like Us. Kellerman returned for Brewster McCloud and Ready to Wear and as herself in The Player. Duvall first appeared in Altman's Countdown and then reunited with him on The Gingerbread Man. Rene Auberjonois rejoined the director for Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Images. David Arkin also appeared in The Long Goodbye, Nashville and Popeye. Last, but certainly not least, MASH marked the appearance of Michael Murphy who may have been the most regular of Altman regulars, appearing in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Brewster McCloud, Kansas City, Countdown, That Cold Day in the Park, Tanner '88, Tanner on Tanner, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and even episodes of TV's Combat, Kraft Suspense Theater and the 1964 TV movie Nightmare in Chicago. It also marked the film debut of Bud Cort who returned in Brewster McCloud. Surprisingly, the actor who gave the best performance in MASH never worked with Altman again. I always go back and forth as to whether or not Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye Pierce is lead or supporting but in either case, it is brilliant and yet another example of the outrage that this man has never received an Oscar nomination for anything. His little whistle as Hawkeye alone is a thing of wonder.

A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
'is it to be or not to be'
and I replied 'oh why ask me?'

'Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
...and you can do the same thing if you choose.


Alright, about that song. The painless it refers to is not just the idea that suicide is free from hurt but refers to a very specific character in MASH: Painless Pole the dentist, portrayed by another Altman regular, John Schuck. Painless has a reputation not only as a Don Juan but as being particularly well endowed, so much so that when it's his turn in the shower, people take turns gazing upon his impressive manhood. The song opens the film but it is reprised again later when Painless, after a bout of impotence, becomes convinced that he may carry some latent homosexuality and even though he's never had any form of gay sex, he figures it's just a matter of time so he goes to Hawkeye for help for a way out. A last supper is arranged, where Painless will take the Black Capsule and commit suicide. Of course, Hawkeye has no intention of helping Painless to kill himself but instead enlists Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Pflug) to sleep with the unconscious Painless and restore his confidence. It works. There even is an instrumental, heavenly choir version of "Suicide Is Painless" to accompany the scene.

Since MASH may well be the among the most plotless of Robert Altman's works (at least of the successful ones), I figured my appreciation of the film should be equally aimless, but I still had a few more things to say and I've run out of stanzas to the song, so I'll just go with them. I love Altman's use of sound, already coming to life here, but particularly in the fun loudspeaker announcements. My personal favorite: the announcement that the American Medical Association had classified marijuana as a dangerous drug, despite previous studies that had found it no more harmful than alcohol. Also, it's worth noting that MASH did garner many Oscar nominations but in a tumultuous year such as 1970, there was no way that the stodgy Academy would go with the subversive Korean War comedy that everyone knew was really about Vietnam. (The Oscar went with the rah-rah jingoism of Patton.) MASH did manage to win adapted screenplay, which was particularly sweet, because its writer was Ring Lardner Jr., one of the most infamous victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Though Robert Altman had made features prior to MASH, truly this is the film that started the Altman canon and career and began to create the legend the late director became.


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Comments:
Wasn't Ring Lardner Jr. infamously unforgiving of Altman and his use of the devil's improv? Or was it the other way around, with Altman upset that Lardner won for the work of the cast? I recall SOMEONE being nonplussed.
 
I remember reading something to that effect at one point, but I don't remember the exact details. Still, it's hard to begrudge a man who was denied work for years or had to work in the shadows a moment in the sun late in his career, no matter the circumstance.
 
I'm reading the new Altman oral biography, and Lardner did hate the finished film and Altman resented Lardner's refusal to acknowledge his own contribution to the script as well as the cast (specifically in his Oscar speech). Lardner did say, a few years before his death, that not giving Altman more credit was his greatest regret.

Elliott Gould tells a story about how he and Sutherland tried to get Altman fired because they thought he didn't know what he was doing. Gould said they were a couple of prima donnas. Don't know Sutherland's feelings, but tellingly, as you pointed out, he never worked with Altman again; nor is he interviewed in the bok.
 
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