May 30, 2016

The Razor's Edge

Shenanigans. Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland
Those of you who think that movies are entirely a visual medium, and that the script is nothing more than a springboard—a prop in a stage play—just try imagining Robert Altman's MASH (1970) without the script (credited to Ring Lardner Jr., who won an Oscar for it). The constant hubbub of overlapping dialogue, the profanity, the screaming, the cockeyed optimism—this corrosive, kinky screenplay does more than delineate character and set situation in the traditional commercial-movie way (advancing the narrative by having the characters "talk" the plot). The screenplay—about Army medics trying to save lives and stave off despair a few miles from the fighting front during the Korean War—binds the visual madness together into a cohesive, realistic world. Lardner and Altman make the movie a critique of highfalutin and hypocrisy—it's blackly funny but not cynical.

Other American movies of the time reflect the Vietnam War, dirty politics, and the country's disgust with itself—Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1967), Irvin Kershner's The Flim-Flam Man (1967) with George C. Scott as an M.B.S., C.S., D.D. confidence man ("Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing"), Blake Edwards's draggy and tasteless What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Ted Post's Hang 'Em High (1968), Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff (1968). Many of these movies simmer with corruption, cynicism, and often what feels like gratuitous bloodshed (although the carnage in The Wild Bunch is a far more sophisticated, ambivalent violence that makes the audience question cherished beliefs about "civilized" manhood). Altman could have gone entirely cynical, too, but what makes MASH so satisfying is that he expresses a realistic idealism—the moviemakers keep their sanity, the way the medics keep theirs, not by a Frank Burns sort of preaching, but by demonstrating integrity and compassion, and disdaining hypocrisy and phoniness. MASH is a picture of redemption.

The bloody work of an army surgical unit is shown in a new way—not for didactic distancing (the way wounded men in war movies in the Forties and Fifties were used as homilies, swollen with sacrificial virtue), and not for the repellent gross-outs and shock effects of movies that use violence pornographically. In MASH, the blood-spattered surgical gowns, scalpels, and clamps are filmed for balance (and mostly in medium shot); the talented medics are humanized by working feverishly in rotten conditions to staunch bloodflow or save limbs (sometimes unsuccessfully). Even the satiric butts, like the prissily bossy "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and the sanctimonious hypocrite Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), are picked up and dusted off after being scraped across the gravel (although Altman perhaps mishandles Burns's departure by stripping him of any vestige of pride he had—the scene goes for a cheap laugh at the character's expense). The surgery scenes give weight and purpose to the sexual shenanigans and practical jokes. The MASH campground resembles Freedonia, the mythical kingdom of wartime mayhem in the Marx Brothers' great Duck Soup (1933), only it's a Freedonia without the loopy Dada.

Altman's direction is excellent; he and his cameraman abruptly pan and zoom in and out to punctuate visual and verbal jokes, and the hip actors in the cast (who seem to know they're making movie comedy history) take advantage of Altman's generosity by improvising some bits. If the screenplay is a springboard for anything, it's improvisation, and it has the same tone as inspired improvisation. The story goes that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland quarreled with Altman on the set. But their performances are marvels of corrosive wit, and reflect a cathartic release of tension.

The Last Supper.

The miracle of MASH is that it so successfully combines the taboo breaching of gallows humor—laughing at suffering to stay sane—with the naturalistic coarseness of low comedy: the movie balances bone saws and foul mouths, and spills off the screen in torrents. Although Korea is the ostensible setting, you know that the movie is really showing the madness of Vietnam, and telling America that it's possible to do good work and sustain your sanity and humanity amid the senselessness of bloodshed and strangling bureaucracy. The effect is restorative, a work of humanism. MASH is a Rabelaisian black comedy, and one of the most sensible American movie satires ever.

May 18, 2016

Out of Italy

The celebrated partnership of Vittorio De Sica, an actor who became one of Italy's—and the West's—most revered directors, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter and film theorist, was inaugurated in the movies with the luminous The Children Are Watching Us in 1944, although the two knew each other for more than a decade prior. Together, their collaborations of Italian neorealism were more mystical and sometimes allegorical than the harsher social portraits of corruption and decay in the work of other Italian neorealists like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The De Sica-Zavattini films are smaller-scale studies in frailty and innocence; they paint not society but individuals in unselfconscious strokes, like prose poetry. When we've forgotten the scenes of wartorn Rome and its political infighting in Rossellini, we remember the disillusioned faces in De Sica.

Scenes from childhood. Luciano De Ambrosis
Zavattini's realism is an homage to the nineteenth century Russian novelists, particularly Turgenev and Tolstoy. (Jean Renoir paid tribute to the Russian and French realists in much the same way.) De Sica, a great director, uses actors' faces and classic narrative conventions like linearity and situational irony to tell stories of the bereft—losers, dreamers, and children enduring the cold hopelessness of loveless lives. He hits his mark, too. The emotional impact of these movies wells up like a rising tide, evenly and surely. In the final scene, the camera fixes on the back of the abandoned child as he trudges away, and the indictment of all squabbling, selfish, vain adults is complete.

The De Sica-Zavattini collaboration produced about twenty films, including the hallowed masterpieces Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D. (1952). The Children Are Watching Us isn't quite one of the masterpieces, but its incandescence and almost Petrarchan sweetness can't be shaken off easily. It points the way to the fables of Truffaut, the Taviani brothers, and Shunji Iwai.