M*A*S*H (1970): Altman Not Alda

MASH

“Suicide Is Painless” remains one of the most misanthropic themes on record and that’s without the completely nonsensical lyrics. With lyrics, it’s even more disillusioning.

Still, this stays very much in line with Robert Altman’s conception of the world. Nothing is ever straight and true. Convention must be eschewed with subverted expectations and darkly comic underpinnings. MASH is one of the finest vehicles he ever had for his methodology of the world.

In full disclosure, someone like me, raised on the sitcoms of old and classic television must admit the inherent difficulties in considering Robert Altman’s MASH, based loosely off Richard’s Hooker’s novel of the same name.

If you are unfamiliar with the historical background, it’s important to know MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and they were posted on the front lines during the military police action that was the Korean War (1950-53).

For everyone else, MASH was a prominent black comedy and an arguably even more beloved television show. Its finale, of course, was the most-watched moment in TV history for many, many years.

All this is to say, to go back and retroactively analyze the original film, it’s all but impossible to totally untangle its reality from my deep affections for Alan Alda and the rest.

Because one point must be made early on. Though appearances might be initially deceiving, they could not be more disparate. My choice is to begin to focus on what Altman’s film does well.

One has to admit he brings his loose and sprawling sensibilities to war pictures with seamless ease. The frames are full of near-constant bouts of improv and an ensemble cast that’s loaded with tons of non-actors and fresh faces. The distinction to make is Altman gives them time in the spotlight, with Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliot Gould pretty much becoming the head honchos in a comedy overflowing with nobodies.

Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) is a free-and-easy surgeon with a case of “whistling dixie” and a taste for pretty nurses and awful gin. Duke is an equally game southern boy who falls into cahoots easily enough. They’ve got their eyes on the top prize christened “Lt. Dish” and the vexing but no less attractive head nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).

The new chest cutter that Pierce pines for, Trapper John McIntire, is cut out of the same cloth. No wonder they all get along. Their main hobbies are sticking it to authority and they get away with every ounce of arrogance because they can back it up in the operating room. The taste that remains is all abrasive — Gould in particular — with he and Sutherland sticking it to just about everyone in their line of sight.

But that’s what this film feels like, purely anti-establishment; it’s never allowed the opportunity to be a true indictment of the utter lunacy of war. Likewise, for a film with purportedly progressive themes for the times, their treatment of the Asian characters, specifically while in Japan, is nothing short of troubling.

When they’re flown out to Japan on a special assignment, they walk all over everyone as the best surgeons around in a world would surrounded by a sea of shmucks. They gas a colonel and blackmail him handily while having no sense of sympathy for other fellow human beings. You begin to wonder about the patients they serve every day. What about them?

We have Gary Burghoff, the only holdover for the TV show. Otherwise, Henry Blake is a bland and vacuous commanding officer, hardly the lovable buffoon he would become as played by McClean Stevenson. The rest of the cast is a decent assemblage of 1970s movie talent, mostly on the road to bigger and better things.

Frank Burns (as played by Robert Duvall) is a hard-edged hypocrite far from the whiny, ferret-faced Larry Linville. The latter is far more enduring. Father Mulcahy is much the same. Unfortunately, the priest in this go-through feels like an easy runt of the jokes. His faith is something to thumb your nose at — little else.

There is not the same warmth nor the moral backbone that William Christopher would bring, only nervous timidity. Again, it’s so easy to enter this dangerous zone of comparison. Taking a page out of Luis Bunuel’s playbook, Altman is having a grand old time toying with the icons of religiosity in his film. Irreverence is his wellspring for comedy.

Because, up against the typical fare of a generation, MASH feels like a freestyle, scattered affair. Whereas the TV show was blessed by the calculated wit of its scripts balanced with pathos, this project thrives on its laxity and general indifference.

There’s a hodgepodge of overlapping dialogue simulating the cadence of real conversation with its constant asides and disruptions. It’s content to be all over the place, not conforming to any Hollywood standard of any kind.

Again, this becomes its life-force. Making a mockery of tradition in a way that no doubt does honor to the Marx Brother’s chaos and might have still been to their chagrin.

But again, MASH, for all who know anything about it, can hardly be considered an out and out war movie. And it’s not just a comedy either. Altman takes those expectations — all those things we assume this picture to be — and tosses them out.

Because MASH is full of darkness and absurdity that goes beyond war. It is an anti-war picture in general terms and yet how can we not at least laugh at the scenarios, the characters, and the insanity of it all?

Because this is film and not the marginally sanitized airwaves of syndication television, there is the space to be raunchier, the O.R. is grislier, scenes are more sensual, but with it, all the playfulness of the later material is flushed away. It’s verging on the bitter, even vindictive.

Fortunately, there is space for a few shenanigans. The in-camp dentist, known as the “Don Juan of Detroit” back home, is having serious doubts about his virility. He thinks he’s losing his prowess and so he’s made the decision to end it for good. He’s gonna commit suicide. In solidarity, all his buddies get together to put one slam-bang finish to the end of his life. A winking “last supper” of sorts that everyone’s in on.

Catching “Hot Lips” in the shower is all in a day’s work to confirm a bet of whether or not she’s a natural blonde. She spends the majority of the film anal and little better than a blithering idiot. In fact, her commanding officer calls her one (granted in the context of a football game). But she is another character who feels like a constant punchline. Altman could care less.

Speaking of the football game, it’s no doubt the piece de resistance in this monolith of absurdity. The boys rally the troops to take on a smug General’s hulking football team.

The only countermove is to call in a ringer, the one, and only, Spearchucker Jones, to help neutralize their opponent’s stacked lineup. By this point, the movie all but jumps off the deep-end leaving reality behind for the sake of comedy.

There is very little war left and nothing to think about except the Marx Brother-like mayhem on the field (although it’s not quite to the caliber of Horse Feathers). Altman directs it like a circus act.  Yelling, screaming, whistles blowing, pom-poms bouncing, from the sidelines. Players falling all over the place from injury and fatigue. It’s utter chaos. And that’s the end of it.

The final poetic justice is a payoff on the film’s first joke. Hawkeye and Duke ride out of camp in the same stolen jeep they came in. As I watched them go, I couldn’t help thinking it was a far cry from a “Goodbye” message telegraphed for a lifelong friend departing by helicopter.

Despite all my sincere attempts, I will remain horribly subjective to the end. I know it already. I’m hopeless. How can I not choose preferences with such singular interpretations of the same material? In fact, it seems like a fine problem to have. It makes it marginally easier to appreciate each on their own merits.

4/5 Stars

 

Klute (1971): Starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland

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There was arguably no man more well-versed in 70s paranoia thrillers than director Alan J. Pakula and if we want to consider the genesis of his “paranoia trilogy,” we must begin with Klute. Aside from the thematic elements and Pakula’s evolving pedigree, it is the partnership with the ever-meticulous Gordon Willis that truly stitches this loose grouping of films together.

Klute is set in New York and though you never forget this fact exactly — we spend a lot of time watching Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) move around town — the film is not built out of the seedy streets like The French Connection (1971).

The majority of the action takes place within interiors where the low-lighting and limiting factors of the space add a certain psychological depth. There is something unnerving out there reflected in the characters themselves.

In his first film score, Michael Small evokes the perturbing tinkling sounds no doubt found in many Columbo episodes and all such fare from the 1970s. This film does feel like a case of localized dread.

It involves suits and pimps, but the scale is fairly small, even if it’s indicative of situations throughout the city. Next, the conspiracy would get larger and corporate in Parallax View. Finally, it would be at the very top in the federal government and in this case, it wasn’t simply fiction; it was real, a la All The President’s Men.

In this particular iteration of the thriller, a top-level businessman has all but disappeared, and his concerned wife is aided by the services of a mutual acquaintance and private investigator: John Klute (Donald Sutherland). He is hired on by the man’s firm to get to the bottom of the issue.

Some incriminating letters to a New York call-girl seem to suggest a Jekyll and Hyde existence that his wife knew nothing about. It’s deeply troubling, but it gives Klute a point of departure. Soon he’s questioning Bree (Fonda), who doesn’t remember the man — she’s in high demand these days — and she’s not about to be pumped for information.

Still, the persistence of this enigmatic out-of-towner eventually gets to her as he doggedly keeps after her with quiet persistence. 2 years prior she was beaten by a client and in the past, she has received a string of prank phone calls, not to mention being tailed on occasion. It comes with the trade.

What’s striking about Bree is how real and pragmatic she is about her life. With her brown helmet of hair and undisputed confidence, she takes the day-to-day in stride. She’s not ashamed about being good at what she does, and it’s even a bit empowering to be in such demand while so easily controlling her emotions. With clients, she’s able to maintain a cool and detached demeanor, totally in control of her situation.

However, she’s also not a stagnant individual, trying to move away from her past, tied down to an abusive pip (Roy Scheider), and a certain lifestyle that comes with the territory. There were formerly aspirations to be an actress, and she spends hours with a therapist talking through her issues. It becomes apparent she is one of the many who is an adherent to external processing.

Thus, John Klute is her perfect foil in all regards. She openly lambastes his kind as “hypocrite squares,”  leaving their ivory towers in the country to look down their long noses in scorn at the corrupt city dweller. The dichotomy of the sinful folk and the methodical morality of this suburbanite is being drawn up.

Still, he doesn’t fit such a convenient definition. His is a constantly unphased, totally imperturbable demeanor. His words are chosen very carefully and sparingly; his actions are taken with a certain purpose. Then again, the same might be said of her. Regardless, their aspirations are of a very different nature.

The title itself seems a near misdirect. One can easily contend the picture is named after the wrong character. After all, Fonda is the undisputed shimmering star of independence. And yet the film is bolstered by all its main characters because out of them the narrative is made compelling and essential, based on the bearing it has in their lives.

Screenwriters Andy and Dave Lewis whip together a script that revels in these figures, even as they themselves play against a larger, harsher milieu. It works in strokes of lingering dread and an unnamed apparition out there somewhere.

No scene is it more apparent than when Sutherland literally chases a phantom out of Bree’s apartment only for the person to vanish into the night without any resolution. It is this open-ended nature that supplies tension.

Except there is ultimately a conclusion and it comes in a very real and present form. Given that we are dealing in a world of call girls, loneliness, and sexual desire, it makes sense our solution would tap into these deep-seated issues.

Without giving away the punchline completely, Klute‘s ending makes my insides crawl. In an admission that might have well come from Norman Bates, one character even acknowledges, “There are little corners of everyone which are better off left alone.” It hints at the dark, rancorous proclivities of human nature. They lay dormant only to erupt in vengeance.

Supposedly Jane Fonda thought the film was preaching a message that if a woman has a good psychiatrist and a man at her side, everything will turn out right. This might be the implicit conclusion of the storyline when we take it out of the confines of what we see. However, there’s also still a sense that Bree has a personality and a will to be her own person. She is strong, at times self-destructive, and she has been through hell and back again.

What resonates is the complexity of this independent person who also has frailty. It’s not simply women but all people who need a bulwark of others around them in order to survive.  When two or more are gathered together something powerful forms.

It is not solely about weakness, or maybe it is, because in some form we are all weak, even if we don’t wish to acknowledge it. We cannot stand up to the onslaught of outside oppressors every waking moment of every day of our life. At some point, we must let our guard down.

Thus, Klute is not a film that leaves us thinking someone is weak for requiring help. Instead, I am reminded of the coarseness of this world and the necessity to find others to help us push through it. Alone we will not survive. We cannot survive.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Ad Astra (2019): To The Stars and “The Seeing Eye”

Ad_Astra_-_film_posterSince the dawn of man, the vast reaches of the cosmos up above have enamored us to the nth degree. You need only watch something like 2001 to be reminded of that fact. (There’s no doubt James Gray is well-versed in its frames.)

Herein lies a core theme throughout our very existence. We have this inherent overlap between science and spirituality — the celestial spheres and the extra-terrestrial — forming a framework for how we comprehend this world.

Aspects of this film even have a near-liturgy or the solemnity of an open-air cathedral. Dean Martin’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a hymn and a hint. Prayers are cast up to St. Christopher for the pilgrimage ahead. The dead are venerated like saintly martyrs for the cause. Because somewhere at the end of it all is the thought of some universal meaning, some ultimate truth, be it God or sentient being.

One is reminded of the proclamation the Soviet Union made when they sent their cosmonaut up into the stratosphere and came back down not having seen God. In essence, the conclusion was that this tangible world was all there is. Tools and technology are the instruments in which to make sense of the world. God, in whatever form, is only a pipe dream or a form of wish fulfillment for the weak. We must look somewhere else. Inside ourselves perhaps.

C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Seeing Eye” wrote the following response when pressed on the Soviet’s pronouncement:

“Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”

Watching Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) with this context uncovers profound meaning for me. It is a journeyman’s film pure and simple. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is on a mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He procures helping agents along the way, namely, Donald Sutherland in an enigmatic role and Ruth Negga, an operations director and Mars-native who dreams of Earth as the distant reality she once visited as a child. It brings to mind her parents, now deceased. Yet another cryptic puzzle piece.

One is led to think they do a fine job being exactly that, mysterious and understated, but it doesn’t give us much to relish as an audience. Tommy Lee Jones is a vanished American hero clouded with secrets of his own. Could it be the rumblings are true and he’s the manifestation of Kurtz in the heart of darkness on the surface of Neptune?

The question becomes not what is at the end of the universe but even more sobering, what if there’s nothing there, just the vastness and austere beauty (as Kubrick depicted, without his images of rebirth)? What are we to do then? Ad Astra‘s conclusions aren’t all that different than the Soviets all those years ago, but they are admittedly far less cynical.

While it lacks true emotional heft in crucial scenes, Gray’s endeavor is concerned with human relationship and this distinction is ever so important. Because this niche of movies can fall into two categories. 2001 spearheads those that are not altogether interested in humanity as such. It’s vast and clinical with the vision and scope Kubrick could capture immaculately. Whereas Tarkovsky’s Solaris or even more recent films like Gravity and Interstellar are far more intimate, regardless of any flaws they might engender.

James Gray is certainly skilled at developing the world planted in a so-called “near-future.” Still, as expansive as the galaxy becomes with every panorama and lens flair by Hoyte van Hoytema, so much more of the movie is borne by the features of Brad Pitt. His perspective and his thoughts. We come to understand him in physical proximity even as we are never allowed close emotional proximity.

Because Ads Astra is a pensive, solitary film. It maintains some intrigue by divulging little and stretching out its assets. It plays with some generic terrors. For instance, “The Surge” that has sent a shockwave across earth leaving many dead and without power. We have moon raiders, Gravity-like survival moments, which Pitt handles with steely aplomb, and touches of governmental conspiracy verging on the sinister.

Primates in space give another brief glimpse of 2001, Planet of The Apes, or even Alien. However, we also get the fleet-footed Nicholas Brothers, who are one of the best-kept secrets of Classic Hollywood’s musical circuit. All these are cultural references to earth, mind you, and not the outer reaches of the galaxy. This is an important observation.

Because there is an uncanny feeling that humanity has managed to shape outer space into our own image with the proliferation of Subway or DHL shipping even made available on the surface of the moon.  It makes the Restaurant on The End of The Universe less of a joke and more and more of a reality.

Still, these are never the elements completely defining Ad Astra for me. They are of secondary or even tertiary importance in deference to the central character study. I am willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt and believe his performance to be authentic and genuine. Where his masculinity is made really and truly vulnerable. We don’t build a deep connection with him precisely because he doesn’t have a rapport with anyone. Not his wife (Liv Tyler in a minuscule role), not his father, not anyone.

We begin to assemble a blueprint of someone who has always dwelled in their father’s footsteps, resentful of being abandoned, and simultaneously driven to be the best he can be in pursuit of the same auspicious goals. There are fractures cutting through his life even as he is a figurehead of national pride and American know-how, his life continually compartmentalized into professional and personal.

In fact, Ad Astra is simultaneously an exploration of how we forge heroes and erect idols in our culture. It doesn’t actually tackle this idea to an altogether satisfying conclusion, although it’s pardonable as the film literally takes an about-face. This is how it manages to set itself apart from the pack with a final decision different than the Soviets or Lewis, Kubrick or Nolan, even Tarkovsky.

For the final key, I turn to a very mundane place. One of my favorite bands sings about “Stars” from a Descartes perspective — humanity at the center of the universe — only to turn it on its head.

Instead of us looking up into the heavens, it becomes the stars looking down at us. To recall Lewis, those who cannot find “God” on earth will hardly find them in space. And those who look for meaning, or the beauty or the love they are lacking, in the skies above will probably be disappointed.

After all, maybe our objective is not the stars at all, and it never was. They are only markers and a compass with which to reorientate ourselves amid the entropy of this lifetime, that is, existence on earth. Once oriented, we can start looking around and seeing the people orbiting around us and begin a new objective — to love and cherish one another. It’s striking Roy’s final words almost sound like wedding vows. As if he went to the stars only to realize what he had to come back to. He finally had eyes to see.

4/5 Stars

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

89761-kellyKelly’s Heroes suffers from the same deliberate pacing problem that The Dirty Dozen has. However, if you accept that and accept that this is not your typical war film, you will learn to enjoy it. With a name that hearkens back to Hogan’s Heroes, Clint Eastwood plays Kelly, a man intent on going behind enemy lines to grab his weight in gold bars during WWII.

The lure of gold proves tempting enough to bring many men on board for this ludicrous mission. Among the gang you have Telly Savalas, the always whining Don Rickles,  Donald Sutherland, Gavin Macleod, and Stuart Margolin. Overall the cast was a fun mix of stars of the big and small screens. Do not assume that this is simply a comedy. It has its fair share of explosions and drama. In other words this film has Don Rickles (comedy) sure, but it has Clint Eastwood (action) to bring it back.

All in all Kelly’s Hereos is a decently fun romp right up there with The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare.

3.5/5 Stars

MASH (1970)

6e0d8-mashfilmposterThe inspiration for the award-winning TV series, MASH follows the quips and antics of two doctors as they are stationed in Korea. Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, with director Robert Altman, it brims with sexual banter, bloody bodies, and comedic moments. MASH effectively is a commentary against war and is seemingly as somber as it is funny. However, up to the end you are left with a smile on your face. The climatic moments during the football game will have all riled up and fittingly we see Captain Pierce (Sutherland) ride away in the same stolen jeep he had when arriving. The iconic theme “Suicide is Painless” adds to the composition. Overall it is a good film much different then the MASH we got to know on television.

4/5 Stars