Mash (1970)

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URGH accidentally deleted a half-written draft for this post.

Mash (1970) depicts the antics and humour used by the staff of an army hospital in Korea in order to “maintain their sanity” in the face of the horrors of war.

I actually quite like Robert Altman as a director. His style of directing is indeed quite unconventional; I always feel that his movies always seem to be some kind of “experiment”, whereby different characters are thrown into a particular situation and as they start to reveal their true personalities, we as the viewers also can’t help but be drawn in. His movies usually reflect the sentiments from a particular era or event (Nashville!) but he still somehow manages to make them seem so artistic without compromising the integrity of the material he’s covering. I loved Gosford Park actually, and I even think it was a better film than A Beautiful Mind LOL.

Mash is described as a “dark comedy”. Well to be honest, I find the comedy more “dark” than “comic” actually. Like any other war-themed films, Mash aims to address the horrors of war, but not through a direct manner. Instead, we see how this group of army surgeons entertain themselves everyday using misogynistic, twisted humour that can easily offend the prudes in everyone. An originally uptight female Major “Hot Lips” is bullied and humiliated, such as having her lovemaking sessions aired to the whole camp and being exposed to everyone while showering. It became so bad that she found it easier to give in to the crowd (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em), and hence assumes the role of a cheerleader (Wow) during a football game, where she becomes surprisingly bimbotic. I can sort of understand why Sally Kellerman lost that supporting actress Oscar; voters must have been INCREDIBLY offended by the material.

What I appreciated the most about the Mash was how well these scenes were actually juxtaposed with the scenes where the surgeons were actually working for real. The surgery scenes are pretty disturbing, because of how realistically shot they were. Altman uses simple effects, such as the sound of sawing and blood spurting, to effectively convey the seriousness of war without actually showing any battle scenes. I also noticed how cramp the surgery rooms were, with several surgeons conducting multiple operations at any one time, and I thought this effectively added to the overall feeling of claustrophobia. The professionalism and seriousness of the surgeons is also seen in stark contrast to their hooliganism outside the surgery room, and in a way, it sort of makes you sympathetic towards them and understand why they act like that. This is also another aspect of Mash (and Altman films in general) that I liked; everyone is pretty much flawed. Although the characterisation here isn’t as sharp as some of his other films, you can’t help but wonder whose side you should really take. This bunch of hooligans who have to face broken bones and severe wounds everyday? Or the uptight, “professional” behaviour of Major Houlihan and Frank Burns? Well, of course one would say that we should side the gang (like the movie does), since regimentation does not help in alleviating the horrors they face everyday, but are their crude antics really necessary? Have they crossed the line? Well, it’s a satire film that intentionally mocks the rigidity and regimentation in the army so it’s obviously going to be slightly over the top.

The film also addresses issues such as the confusion and fear over one’s sexual orientation in the army. In a bleakly comic scene resembling the last supper, the gang stages the funeral  for a suicidal Waldowski who believes that he may have had homosexual tendencies. That scene was so strangely surrealistic and weird (and “Altman”), but at the same time it was somewhat humourous in the way it deals with Waldowski’s problems. Like all Altman film, the movie has this genuinely surrealistic, dreamy atmosphere that effectively complements the absurdity and weirdness of the characters. Even the “Suicide is Painless” theme song (which I loved, omg) was so morbid, depressing and weird, but soothing to listen to at the same time. It’s a really unique way of showing how war dehumanizes people, not through the act of killing, but through their desperate ways to adapt.

I’m not particularly crazy over the acting in this one. It’s very good all around, but nothing overly outstanding. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould effectively portray the deviousness and rotten nature of their characters very memorably, while still reminding us from time to time that their characters are still human, as shown by their disbelief in the ending scene when they finally received their discharge papers. I know some people love Sally Kellerman’s performance but I thought she was just fine. I try not to let how offensive the writing for her character cloud my judgment, and focus on her actual acting…which was good, but not really memorable. Yes, her breakdown scene was well-done and she successfully made me feel sorry for her there, but for the most part her character’s just getting constantly humiliated and bullied. It’s almost like those “she who suffers”  roles (Nyong’ O and Hathaway) that I don’t really like, where the character just suffers and suffers. Of course, over here it’s done in a darkly comic fashion, but overall I’m still quite indifferent towards her performance.

Overall, Mash is a really great film that I greatly appreciated, though I wouldn’t really say I was entertained by since its material can be really quite dark at times. It really showed the talent Robert Altman had as a director. 4.5/5.

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