Quick Takes: 03.13.2013 – ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘Wild Bunch’, ‘Contempt’, ‘Play Time’

MASHM*A*S*H (Robert Altman; 1970)

Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing

Perhaps it might have been good to plan a better initiation into Robert Altman’s filmography than this popularized Korean/Vietnam war comedy, blurring the moral lines between both wars by obscuring the opposition entirely. Walking into M*A*S*H, there shouldn’t be any preconceived notion that it will be anything other than a farce, but even irreverent satires like Dr. Strangelove used comedy to pierce the skin of mass culture propaganda. This film is part of that skin, with little interest in stirring up any level of social controversy. It may be argued that that’s not the point of M*A*S*H, but I struggle to see what the point is exactly.

Focusing on an army medical unit, normative war tensions are mocked and ignored as dying soldiers are taken in and thrown out as bodies, with little care from the doctors. The focus instead seems to be on their own sexual interests, whose nonchalantly misogynistic antics grow tiresome all too immediately. A character’s nickname of “Hot Lips” pathetically becomes her own idiotic identity, if it wasn’t already. Perhaps I should “lighten up, dude”, as opposing classmates repeatedly insist, but my issues here are markedly similar to those I had with Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance, at this point sadly a benchmark for stale comedic performance. An overextended football climax is the maximum of writer Ring Lardner Jr.’s satirical interpretations of war, handled with absolutely none of the panache I’ve heard Altman is known for. Another shot is due.

The Wild BunchThe Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah; 1969)

Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing

If M*A*S*H fit none of the criteria of my class on war in film, I was surprised to find this Sam Peckinpah western fit all the desire criteria of my apocalypse cinema class. Obviously “apocalyptic” is less a story event in this case as it is a framework of intelligibility, and one which the western genre fits rather cleanly into. In the struggle between law and crime on such a desolate landscape, death waits inevitably for one side or the other. What makes The Wild Bunch amongst the more clever deconstructions of the genre at the time is how murky those distinctions of good and evil are made. The law is upheld not by honorable cops, but by grave-robbing bounty hunters who trigger-happily set of an apocalyptic scene in a small town filled with civilians.

No wonder the titular bunch opt out of such American chaos and into the freedom of Mexico, where another power struggle is giving moral and political shape to the country. Outside the unethical boundaries of America, a land already tainted by the guilt of nuclear atrocities – It may be set in a period far prior, but the political subtext surrounding the production’s period need not be ignored – these moral questions about what life is worth sacrificing for have particular resonance. All is aided by the flair Peckinpah packs into the film’s three action set-pieces. A midsection train robbery packs all the adventurous, heroic western punch we expect, but in the film’s opening and closing displays of chaos, music is stripped away to let the raw violence of the world sink in. The level-everything-to-the-ground climax is a trope of the genre Quentin Tarantino was wisely assimilated into his regular style.

ContemptContempt (Jean-Luc Godard; 1963)

Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing

Jean-Luc Godard is almost notoriously known for making things difficult for his audiences, messing with the construct of film by openly addressing the fact that it’s not real. His 1967 film Week-End practically spits in the face of audience accessible aesthetics, testing patience with extremely long takes and bellowing music. The repetitive musical cue technique was already used four years earlier in Contempt, a film which quite romantically hooks the viewer in the opening, admitting openly to be making a film about the making of film. In terms of plot, though, there’s not terribly much there. A couple finds their happiness torn apart in an instant when the husband takes up the job of rewriting Fritz Lang’s (Yes, he’s in this movie as himself. That’s pretty awesome!) The Odyssey for a dissatisfied American producer.

I feel Lang would absolutely agree that the film they’re making would be total shit if ever brought to public scrutiny, but the film’s concern is around the bitter squabbling of French writer Paul and blonde wife Camille. Their love is set up in the most gorgeous of ways, a single switching between colour palette’s as the mood changes, or as we the audience believe it has changed based on these effects. As such we may be lost in the long scene of Camille admitting she has suddenly fallen out of love with Paul, for what seems like no apparent reason. It’s their continuous inability to reconcile that parallels tragically with the doomed prospect of a collaborative cinema, as Godard sees it. If his vision does much to distance us from proceedings, it is still undeniably one without compromise.

Play TimePlay Time (Jacques Tati; 1967)

Grade: A | 1st Viewing

Isn’t it so much easier to reconcile with old directors when their oeuvre’s no more than a few films long? While Jean-Luc Godard’s and Robert Altman’s filmographies well exceed 30 titles, Jacques Tati only made five feature films before his death in 1982, though he happily lingers on in Sylvain Chomet’s adaptation of his last screenplay The Illusionist. His films featuring Monsieur Hulot may not have the range of social satires Charlie Chaplin covered in his time, but works like Mon Oncle and particularly Play Time emphasize his unmatched brilliance in patiently constructing gags on the hysterical modernization of “today”s society. What’s all the more brilliant about Play Time is that it made these statements nearly 50 years ago.

Paris happily doesn’t look nearly as conglomerate and sanitized today as it is in Tati’s film, but the threat of losing the beauty of the old world to the inefficient efficiency of the new remains intact. The Hulot character is barely needed to bring the film’s points across, but Tati’s physical language as an actor carries across the technophobic aimlessness of the overcomplicated city buildings, each chrome cubical nearly identical to the next. It’s one of the most ambitious production designs in film history, particularly as we move into night and an all too posh restaurant finds itself literally falling to pieces. In this modernist amusement park, a sense of sweetness pervades thanks to the film’s two regular characters, the aforementioned and affable Hulot, and sweet American tourist Barbara. Thank god, she’s a brunette! If I never see another gorgeous blonde in a 60s film, it’ll be no great loss!

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  • Okay, as promised . . .

    “The Master” (A): Okay, Film Misery writers (or more specifically, Justin and Alex, as I don’t think the rest of you were around for last year’s top 10). You are forgiven for massively overrating “Certified Copy”. This was worthy of all the praise you’ve given it. Three absolutely tremendous performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams, a deeply meaningful story, and astonishing visuals throughout. Still have a lot of films to see, but at the moment it’s definitely my #1 movie of the year.

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