Although I have boundless admiration for the work of Robert Altman in general, I've never much cared for M*A*S*H, unfortunately the film of his most popular among casual viewers. Its humor seems pretty sophomoric to me (especially in comparison with a truly great work of "black humor" set in wartime such as Heller's Catch-22) and what it has to "say" about war--it's really bad, and thus invites compensating "bad" behavior--seems rather trite. Every time I rewatch it--this time as part of a career survey of Altman's films I am hereby initiating--I think perhaps I'll finally get it, will understand why everyone else likes it so, but I never do. (I actually like the tv show much better, especially the first couple of seasons.)
But at least this time around I was able to see those things in it that are of a piece with Altman's later and better work, even how directing this film might have inspired him to further pursue its strategies, with greater success, in the later films. It may not be one of his best movies, but it probably will still turn out to be one of his most important.
M*A*S*H is, of course, an "inversion" of the war film, just as McCabe and Mrs Miller inverts the Western, The Long Goodbye the detective film/film noir, Thieves Like Us the gangster film, etc. Rather than focus on scenes of battle and heroism, it depicts the results of battles--carnage--and the decidedly nonheroic behavoir of its protagonists (except when they're in the operating room trying to undo the damage inflicted by war heroism). Rather than extolling the scene of war as one in which traditionally "masculine" virtues are revealed at their best, in which boys become men, M*A*S*H shows men acting like boys. This is presented as the most authentic response to the stupidity of war. And rather than portray war with the solemnity that might seem its due, the film offers outrageous humor, humor that exceeds in its acidity all those previous war comedies that tried to find the "lighter" side of war.
The subsequent exploded genre films will continue this strategy, reversing our expectations of the genre in question, upending assumptions about gender, in general mocking the conventional practices that pretend to represent American life and attitudes in the movies. That M*A*S*H did it first and in 1970 perhaps partly explains why this movie became popular--such questioning of inherited beliefs and conventions was surely reaching a receptive audience at that time.
M*A*S*H also shows Altman developing (or refining) what will become his signature methods and techniques, an approach that here and afterward can be identified as his distinctive (and, for American cinema, innovative) fillmmaking style. Most discussion of Altman's style focuses on his use of long takes and overlapping dialogue--both are on display in M*A*S*H, although the latter somewhat less so--but to me what stands out most in Altman's use of such techniques, including his restless camera, is the way in which it works to substantially underdramatize his films' narratives. This can be seen in M*A*S*H, and also in That Cold Day in the Park, Altman's most immediately previous film, released in 1969. Both films are deliberately and episodically developed, although That Cold Day in the Park is ultimately more linear in its narrative strategy that M*A*S*H, which is literally presented as a collection of episodes. That Cold Day in the Park, in fact, could almost be called a thriller of sorts, although the story is told in such a matter-of-fact, understated way that one is almost caught offguard when it eventually makes its way into Pyscho/Peeping Tom territory. Sandy Dennis's underplayed performance as the psycho (again a reversal of our expectations of such a character), whose diffidence and adherence to class norms mask her mounting frustration and despair, anticipates all the similarly underplayed, ad hoc performances Altman managed to elicit in his subsequent films from all of his actors (occasionally at some cost, if Altman's reported conflicts with Donald Sutherland and Warren Beatty are to be credited).
Altman's style and his unhurried, off-the-cuff mode of storytelling have the effect of almost de-familiarizing the filmgoing experience. We don't expect movies, or at least American movies, to proceed in this way. Where's the melodramatic conflict, the overwrought gestures, the clearly signalled plot twists? Altman's films force our awareness of them as films, or at least enforce our recognition of the formulas employed in most other films, formulas Altman either attacks or ignores. And this happens even though the techniques Altman does employ are otherwise unobtrusive, more authentically realistic as aesthetic choices than most of those used to create "realism" in American cinema. The ultimate effect of Altman's approach to filmmaking, it seems to me, is to more fully immerse us into the filmgoing experience, make us more aware of viewing films as an experience, very much in the spirit of John Dewey's notion of "integrating the parts" I discussed in the previous post. Very few other American filmmakers encourage us to ponder the nature of aesthetic experience in its cinematic form in quite the way Robert Altman does.
In my opinion, That Cold Day in the Park actually performs this task in a more satisfying way than M*A*S*H. It is, I think, one of Altman's more underrated films, even while M*A*S*H is one of his most overrated. Its exploration of the conflict between classes and between "liberated youth" and the repressed older generation might seem to fix the film to the 60s era it to some extent does seek to render, but its very lack of affect and its unostentatious surface (the youth with whom Sandy Dennis's character becomes obsessed is not a blustering radical but for much of the film simply remains silent) lure us in and prevent it from being an obvious period piece. In some ways, M*A*S*H, with its willed anarchy and its scarcely hidden analogies to Vietnam, seems more dated. Neither film really shows Robert Altman to be the great film artist he will demonstrate himself to be in just a few years hence, but That Cold Day in the Park, at least, does announce he has the promise to become one.