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Film Review - M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H is a comedy that mocks everything it touches. There is no aspect of the film, blood and gore included, that does not work on a comic level. The story of the unpatriotic activities of a doctor's unit in Korea, M*A*S*H is primarily interested in two officers: Hawkeye and Trapper John, a couple of the Army's least reverent servants. Their friends are characters like Painless - a dentist who loses his desire to live and play poker; and their nemesis are officers like Major Burns, who believes in God, and Hot Lips, who believes in the Army.
The devices in M*A*S*H are very effective. The public address system filled with a ceaseless series of outrageous noises from a Japanese "My Blue Heaven", to a re-scheduling of Yom Kippur services, to Hawkeye and Trapper's audio spying of Major Burns and Hot Lip's first try at adultery. In M*A*S*H, director Robert Altman's lines are sharper and his editing more directive than in his other films. Never is a word or opportunity for a laugh thrown away. For instance, while Hawkeye is interrogating Major Burns on Hot Lip's performance in the bedroom ("Is she better than self-abuse?"), Altman cuts back and forth to Trapper John's sideline wisecracks. ("Watch out for your goodies, Hawkeye - that guy's a sex maniac. Hot Lips didn't satisfy him.")
Even in the overlapping dialogues, Altman creates a mood of the authenticity without ever allowing us to miss a vital word. A typical situation is the juxtaposition of Hawkeye and another doctor named Duke plotting to seduce the nurses with the nurses themselves, chatting excitedly - unaware of the men's presence. We seem to be missing something in both conversations through hearing them simultaneously; but if one listens carefully, it becomes apparent that both are merely babbling about nothing (the women about their nails, the men about their lust). Placed together, the dialogues are funny - separately, they're expendable.
The camera is very clever in M*A*S*H holding little back in the way of virtuosity. Painless's Last Supper is made a big deal, for instance, shot wide-angle through a tent screen and dressed in the manneristic effects of Tintoretto's painting. In the football sequence, we are treated to TV coverage; and there are lots of pannings, cross-editings, and close ups during the Hot Lips debauchery and the Tokyo trip. But the director is already sufficiently adept to avoid "showing off," and there are many sequences where the lens is docile, leaving the scene to the characters. M*A*S*H also introduces Altman's ironic use of music, with songs like Suicide Is Painless.
While it plays to anti-war sentiment, M*A*S*H is no more a rhetorical anti-war film than Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Altman's film is primarily black comedy. Its humor is more smug than daring. For instance, asked where she hails from, Hot Lips replies, "I like to think of the Army as my home," the audience is guaranteed to laugh or at least groan at her sincerity. In a similar fashion, Altman sets the ever-vulnerable Hot Lips up for put-downs. "How could a person like that have reached a position of authority in the U.S. Army?" she asks. "He was drafted," is the reply.
The plot slows down a bit and sags at places. The Tokyo trip, for instance, is very weak. But as a rule, the film is funny with an easier humor than Altman will apply in any of his later works.