AFI #54: M*A*S*H

In my lifetime there have only been a few situation comedies that rank among the greats — Seinfeld, Cheers, Taxi and one of the best ever, M*A*S*H. The characters were unforgettable and the writing superb. Hawkeye, Trapper, Radar, Colonel Blake, Frank Burns and of course Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. The television show was a fixture for me growing up and to this day I can’t move on when I stumble across an old episode on cable. Which is why it’s so hard for me to love the film version from which the TV show spawned. I like the film, but I don’t love it like I do the TV version. Disagree if you like, but this is my blog!

That being said, the film version of M*A*S*H has a lot going for it. To begin with, the writing is brilliant. Ring Lardner Jr. won an Academy Award for the screenplay, which by the way was based on the book by Richard Hooker. Lardner delivered some memorable words, most of which were uttered by the sardonic Hawkeye and the lead troll Trapper. It’s a non-stop delight of wit and humor, and that in and of itself makes the film worthy of its place on the AFI list. But of course the lines had to be uttered by great actors and Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould were wonderful as Hawkeye and Trapper. I definitely like Alda’s Hawkeye better, but Gould’s Trapper kills Wayne Rogers’ version. Gould steals the film for my money and he was never better than in M*A*S*H.

The other thing that was cool about the film version versus the TV show was that the film was made in 1970 and since it was rated R it got away with a lot more vulgarity than the television version. Could you imagine an African American character being named “Spearchucker Jones” on TV? Or this exchange between Hawkeye and Frank:

Hawkeye Pierce: Morning, Frank. Heard from your wife? A bunch of the boys asked me to, uh, ask you, Frank, what Hot Lips was like in the sack. You know, was she…
Frank Burns: Mind your own business.
Hawkeye Pierce: No Frank, you know, is she better than self-abuse? Does that…does that big ass of hers move around a lot, Frank or does it sort of lie there flaccid? What would you say about that?

Classic. Hawkeye and Trapper are two of the great characters ever written and both the TV show and the film prove this point.

I do have one complaint about the film, though. Why can’t Robert Altman allow one actor to speak at a time? He drives me crazy with his “stream of consciousness” dialogue treatment. It may be realistic, but it’s hard to follow. I felt the same way about Altman’s Nashville which I reviewed earlier in this countdown. Damn Altman is overrated (except for The Player).

Next on the AFI list are back-to-back De Niro favorites: Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter.

AFI #59: Nashville

I have a love/hate relationship with the late director Robert Altman. On the one hand, he made some films I really loved including MASH, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Fool For Love and one of my all-time favorites The Player. On the other hand, he also made some piles of dung including Popeye, Dr. T and the Women and Pret-a-Porter. He made Short Cuts, in which he pretty much ruined some of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories and gave us full frontal nudity by both Julianne Moore (thank you) and Huey Lewis (yuck). And then there was Nashville, which I watched for the first time this weekend. Nashville makes the AFI list, as does MASH. How can the AFI be so inconsistent?

For me, Nashville was 159 minutes of WTF! I can’t say I hated it, but I definitely didn’t like it. Again, we find ourselves in the early 70s where for some reason film directors feel compelled to shock and confuse us with so-called art. Nashville revolves around a handful of people in Nashville over the course of several days. The characters are interconnected, but it’s not always clear how or why. There’s the aging country singer trying to stay relevant. There’s a television producer working on a concert for a non-traditional presidential candidate (we see vans for the candidate throughout the film and hear his ramblings over a loud speaker but never see him). There’s a gospel singer with two deaf kids and a husband who has political aspirations. There’s a BBC reporter wandering around town interviewing everyone she thinks is important. There’s a young hippie woman visiting home from Los Angeles. There’s a guy who shows up in town to make it in the music business. There’s a woman hiding from her husband also trying to make it in the music business. There’s a beautiful but untalented singer trying to make it in the music business. There’s a young rock band on the verge of breakup. There’s a famous country singer teetering on the edge of sanity. And of course there’s Jeff Goldblum riding around on a three-wheel motorcycle picking up and dropping people off for no apparent reason. You get the idea — pure Altman madness.

The film shuffles back and forth between the characters and the conversations in dizzying fashion. Random people have sex with each other. There are many painstakingly complete musical performances from the characters (awful if you don’t care for Grand Ole Opry style country music — and who does?). I don’t have a problem with the sort of slice of life style of this film in which the viewer quickly bounces back and forth between scenes, but for me the trouble with Nashville lays in the lack of character depth. I don’t have a clue about the motivations of these characters.

WARNING: SERIOUS SPOILER ALERTS

I don’t know why Barbara Jean is so tortured. I don’t know why Tom wants to sleep with Linnea so badly and I don’t know why when they finally do sleep together she simply walks out afterward and he could give a shit despite hounding her for days to meet him and declaring his love for her. I don’t know why L.A. Joan is in Nashville nor why she doesn’t seem to care that her aunt is dying. I don’t have a clue where presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker stands on issues beyond his hatred of lawyers. I don’t know why Elliott Gould and Julie Christie make random cameos as themselves. I have no idea if Opal actually works for the BBC or if she’s just insane and I don’t know why Jeff Goldblum is riding around on a motorcycle and doesn’t have any lines in the film. And most of all, I have no flippin idea why Kenny randomly decides to shoot Barbara Jean! I don’t even know if she’s dead when the film ends. At least in Days of Our Lives we have some context. This is just random weirdness.

I think AFI has its head up its ass on this one. As for Altman, MASH deserves its high place of honor on this list…but The Player is so much better than Nashville. Not even close. Oh, and the Academy Award judges are clueless as well. Nashville was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. It won for Best Song, a slow little ditty performed by that “well-known musical genius” Keith Carradine. Here, see how much of this garbage you can stand:

Next up: The Gold Rush