Monday, January 4, 2010

M*A*S*H (1970)

Does anything actually happen in M*A*S*H? I know, in a literal sense, that things happen, but, was I supposed to care? Robert Altman's films always seem to leave me with these same questions. While a technical mastermind and a brilliant character director, Altman seems to always disregard one of the fundamental rules of cinema; a film without drama is a bad film. M*A*S*H is a movie with absolutely no drive. Watching the film is an exercise in tedium and apathy.

M*A*S*H is the story of medical unit on the front lines of the Korean war. The doctors at this particular camp have an interesting way of dealing with the bloodshed and carnage they see on a daily basis. They use humor. For the next two hours the cast, headlined by Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould and Robert Duvall, amble along through a series of unrelated and unimportant events until the movie ends. Director Robert Altman lends his trademark style as well. The film picked up a handful of Oscar nominations, winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay, and manages to persist as a 1970's classic despite all of it's glaring faults.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, films without narrative drive are bad films. M*A*S*H is a movie that doesn't go anywhere. I'm not saying that, because it is a war movie, it has to be a serious film, but how Altman made a war movie without conveying the slightest sense of danger is beyond me. Our characters are never challenged and there is never any real threat to them. This trivializes the entire movie and makes it really hard to care about anything that happens. The writing is certainly good, the dark humor, while it errors on the side of blatantly sexist, is generally spot on and the actors commit fully to Altman's style and their characters, but without a dramatic push the movie just feels like a series of unimportant, loosely connected events.

It's no surprise to me that M*A*S*H spun-off into a wildly successful television show. Through most of the film, I was thinking about how shorter, focused episodes on individual conflicts in the camp would suit Altman's vision better than a two hour movie. Bringing in a ringer from American to win a football game against another camp would be a great premise for an episode of television, but it makes for a bad film. The worst thing I can say about M*A*S*H is that it just isn't at all compelling. What's the best thing I can say? It's better than Gosford Park. The score stands at zero for acclaimed director Robert Altman in my book and something troubling tells me that M*A*S*H is as good as it gets.


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