Tag Archives: M*A*S*H

Goodbye, Farewell and Reinvention

The folks behind 30 Rock know their core audience is obsessed with popular culture and has been (clearly) raised on TV. Their Trivial Pursuit-like references test the intelligence of even the geekiest of fans, and the May, 2009, episode “Kidney Now!” has one of the best. NBC page Kenneth is helping Tracey Jordan though the trauma he experienced in a high school science class, and they are interrupted by Jack Donaghy’s father, played by Alan Alda…

Alda’s line about a “chicken and a baby” is an explicit reference to a crucial scene in the series finale of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell & Amen,” which aired in 1983. For those who need a reminder, here’s 90 second clip, edited down to its bare essentials. Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alda, is in an army psychiatric hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown. He’s telling his doctor (Allan Arbus  1)about the experience that triggered it: He, his fellow soldiers and some Korean refugees were in bus hiding from an enemy patrol, and a woman’s chicken wouldn’t keep quiet…


I loved the joke on 30 Rock (the “It was a baby!” moment has been a touchstone with my crowd for years), but my wife missed it. In fact, most of the people I asked—peers, mind you, also in their early 40s—missed it. But certainly they had all seen it. Everyone did. The finale to M*A*S*H is one of the most watched events on TV (let me be clear here: the series finale of The Sopranos was watched by 12 million people, whereas the M*A*S*H finale had 121 million viewers), and yet today one of its most memorable moments (good or bad) might as well be an in-joke.

Naturally, this is due in part to its age: the M*A*S*H finale aired 26 years before the 30 Rock season finale. But that’s not the only reason most people missed that joke, as far as I can see. M*A*S*H the Series must be one of the biggest examples of a cultural phenomenon that has an incredibly weak lasting impact. Incredibly weak.

M*A*S*H was a massive media machine its last few seasons, with non-stop press, awards, books, calendars, clothing, etc. My God, it was sick. (Who wouldn’t want their kid to be Max Klinger for Halloween?) And I’ll freely admit that I drank that (Un)Kool Aid. Sure, I preferred the older episodes (and continue to have a soft spot for the first few seasons), ones I could see 10 times a week in syndication, but I was thrilled to be watching the new episodes, being a part of truly popular culture. And, yes, I was psyched for that finale, having my own M*A*S*H party (everybody did) and proud it received such ginormous ratings, beating the record set in 1980 by Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” episode (screw you, Larry Hagman!)

But, wow, did that show become yesterday’s news fast. And revisiting it (for the sake of this post) it’s not hard to see why. Jesus, what a self-important mess. Plodding, pompous, preachy (the 3 P’s of Bad Television). Unfunny to the nth degree, too. And Mike Farrell’s mustache may be the worst TV has ever seen.

Mind you, in the 80s, there were several critics who said exactly what I just did. They were right on the money in their contemporary assessment (but I ignored them a bunch of naysayers). None were more astute than the Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine. In October, 1982, they brilliantly skewered the show’s de-evolution from situation comedy to sanctimonious pulpit. It includes one of my all-time favorite MAD panels:

And that laugh-out-loud piece of business brings us back to Alan Alda, the actor who in the last seasons became the show’s driving force (he was a frequent writer and director). Presumably, the show’s holier-than-thou, War-is-Hell attitude was an extension of his own beliefs, and in the wake of the show, he laid low for a few years. He graciously gave us all a break, perhaps because of burn-out, perhaps hiding from the unavoidable backlash in the wake of such tremendous success.

But beginning in 1989, he stole scenes as Lester in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (“If it bends, it’s funny…”) and reinvented himself as a character actor with a knack for playing assholes, liars and egomaniacs. And the Band Played On, The Aviator, Flash of Genius  2, and ER all benefited from his contributions. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen him The West Wing.) In 2005, he played Shelly Levene in a Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, and, man, it was something to behold. (This was Jack Lemmon’s role in the film version, and Alda made it his own.)

(Besides the plethora of memorable supporting roles, there’s an oft-told story that endeared Alda to me as well: Sometime in the last decade he attended an dinner ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II and while standing in the reception line, he realized he was next to Donald Sutherland, who originated the role of Hawkeye Peirce in the film version of M*A*S*H. Alda leaned over to Sutherland and whispered, “Thank you for my life.” I love that story.)

I can’t imagine what Alan Alda means to someone who didn’t live through the 70s and 80s. I suppose to the young’un’s who care, he’s exactly as I described: a superlative character actor who tends to play a jerk. (The IMDB lists his acting trademark as “often plays ambitious authority figures that are corrupt and unethical.”) But 30 years ago he was so much more: actor, writer, director, activist, male feminist, peace-loving TV preacher, and possibly one of America’s first metrosexuals. Honestly, he did not come across as someone with a sense of humor about himself, much less an actor who’d go on a show and poke fun at his precious M*A*S*H.

__________________________________________________

Frankly, this whole post began because of Seinfeld. I’ve been re-watching seasons 4 though 7 and marveling at the abundance of references to ancient or arcane pop culture. For example, in one episode (“The Hamptons”), in a matter of minutes, there are references to The Graduate; Johnny Carson’s mannerisms; Tang and the Space Program; and the theme song to the Bea Arthur series Maude. I saw an episode last night where a punchline was “Hey, it’s better than Dondi”!

And so stay tuned for a future post: the Seinfeld Pop Culture Literacy Test!

(By the way, he M*A*S*H memorabilia photos came from the wonderful and thorough blog AfterM*A*S*H, by Rob Kelly. If you’d like to see someone intelligently pay tribute to the show and put it in perspective, pay him a visit.)

__________________________________________________

BACK TO POST 1 Yes, Diane Arbus’s ex-husband. How weird is that?

BACK TO POST 2 Flash of Genius (2008) is a film about the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, wonderfully played by Greg Kinnear. Alda, playing a lawyer, has only a few scenes, but he’s great. Frankly, whenever I hear he’s in a film I’m about to see, I say, “Fuckin’ A!”

9 Comments

Filed under Comedy, TV

When Film Imitates Art

The Last Supper (1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci) & M*A*S*H (1970, Robert Altman)


One art form “borrowing” from another is nothing new, whether it be an homage or a rip-off. In film, for example, a filmmaker might mime something from another visual art (typically painting) to make a point. Here’s some examples (which are interesting in their own right but really a set-up for an obscure one)…

Robert Altman did it in M*A*S*H (above) for the sake of irony. An army dentist prepares to kill himself and his buddies have a send-off dinner. They ask the army priest to deliver the last rites, and he arrives just in time to see the party inadvertently strike a famous pose. (By the way, his reaction shot is the icing on the cake.) 1

Terry Gilliam was both funny and literal in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: the dinner-time arrival of the goddess Venus recreates Botticelli’s painting, the humorous implication being that this is how she comes to dinner daily.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1486, Sandro Botticelli) & The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, Terry Gilliam)


Ken Russell’s recurring theme of blurring fantasy and reality is key to his use of Fuseli’s The Nightmare in Gothic, his version of the circumstances behind the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In real life, she claimed that her book was born out of a nightmare she had. Russell visually represents it, asking, in a sense, was that nightmare caused by the demon on her chest? 2

The Nightmare (1781, Henry Fuseli) & Gothic (1986, Ken Russell)


Director Herbert Ross and writer Dennis Potter’s depression-era Pennies from Heaven has a mood so similar to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, it made perfect sense to see Potter’s characters momentarily become the painting. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve yet to see if this homage is in the original BBC version.)

Nighthawks (1942, Edward Hopper) & Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)


The source materials for all the images above are very famous to begin with, common images in the popular consciousness. Sometimes, however, the filmmaker doesn’t hit you over the head with the reference; sometimes the inspiration is not as well known. For example, George Cukor had keen appreciation for the grace of Degas’s Dancers Lace Their Shoes, which he used as the inspiration for a Cinemascope tableau early in A Star is Born, throwing in a gruff stagehand to modernize it. This shot does little more than establish the backstage mood at a live event, but it sure looks gorgeous on the big screen.

Dancers Lace Their Shoes (c. 1970, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) & A Star is Born (1954, George Cukor)


Here’s my favorite reference in a film. I came to this backward, meaning when I saw the film I had no idea what it was referencing. However, in this post I’ll unfold the information in real chronological order.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, and his tale of the doomed Lennie and George immediately entered the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, photographer Dorothea Lange was in the midst of documenting the day-to-day plight of migrant workers and other victims of the Depression (her most famous photograph is Migrant Mother) and took this picture, which she called Toward Los Angeles, California.

Two years later, Lewis Milestone directed the first film based on Of Mice and Men, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie. This scene is very early in the film; in fact, it isn’t in the book (it occurs a few hours before Steinbeck’s first chapter). George and Lennie, on their way to a workranch, get off of a bus, being told by a dismissive driver that their destination is “just a stretch down the road.”

Like I said, I came to this in reverse: I saw the film in grade school and a few times after that on TV, and then, about ten years later, in some trendy boutique in the Village, I came across Lange’s picture on a rack of postcards. I experienced major déjà vu, and it took me months to recollect where I had first seen it.

I think Milestone’s allusion to Lange is way more sophisticated than the others listed above. All the others have their merits and fit into the filmmakers’ purpose, so they’re perfectly fine (Hell, this isn’t a competition). But Milestone referenced a largely-unknown photo that was only two years old. (As opposed to the others who were sometimes reaching across centuries.)

The film uses Lange’s image as a way of infusing some topical documentary into the narrative, but I think it runs deeper, a kind of mixed-media mind meld. Even though Steinbeck and Lange were contemporaries using their respective skills to chronicle the times, in 1937 Steinbeck was the more famous of the two. It isn’t a far reach to think that Lange imagined Lennie and George when she took her picture a month after the book’s publication. (That’s the cover to the first edition to the left, with artwork depicting–you guessed it–two guys walking down a road.) And then Milestone’s appropriation posits a possible back story to Lange’s photograph (especially since he staged it so the scene/shot would resolve with the recreation of her Toward Los Angeles, California).

I’m spelling this out explicitly because in 1940 when John Ford directed his film of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he and Director of Photography Gregg Toland also borrowed imagery from Lange and photographs taken by the WPA—and that artistic give-and-take has been fastidiously chronicled. You can’t read five sentences about Ford’s film without the writer going on about that. Look, I dig it and all, but I’ve never read anywhere that director Lewis Milestone did it, too—a year before John Ford did!

Of Mice and Men 1st edition dustjacket (1937, artist unknown), Towards Los Angeles, California (1937, Dorothea Lange) & Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone)

Yeah, I’ll admit it: as much as I love Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always had a soft spot for Milestone’s Of Mice and Men. The cast is exceptional; the filmmaking both technically sophisticated 3  and elegantly simple; and Aaron Copeland’s original score is pretty damn brilliant. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and Netflix it. (And fer Christ’s sake, stay clear of the 1992 Sinise/Malkovich version, unless you want to see the oxymoron of all oxymorons: Malkovich’s thinking man’s Lennie. Yeesh…)

________________________________________________

BACK TO POST 1 Thanks to Altman’s love of gritty cinematography, it’s hard to truly appreciate the amount of detail in this frame grab—and all of its humor. This production still, although from a slightly different angle, reveals two particularly nice touches: the shape of the tent’s wall-of-gauze creates a marvelous frame-within-the frame, and the red cross on the top of the tent is an extra allusion to religion.

BACK TO POST 2 Ken Russell’s work does not lend itself to extreme simplification, and odds are I’ve misrepresented his intent with his use of Fuseli’s painting. My apologies to the Russell fans out there, especially to Michael Worrall, an old friend who helped me considerably with this post.

BACK TO POST 3 If you want to see something really cool, check out this clip, which is a slightly longer version of the clip above. It includes George’s conversation with the bus driver, half of which is shot on a soundstage. After the insert shot of the bus driver’s foot on the brake, it cuts back to the conversation, only now the actors are in a real bus. It’s really cool; in fact, if I hadn’t pointed it out, I wonder if you would have noticed it?

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Film