EL310 Satire in Popular Culture
from Assault on Society: Satirical Literature to Film by Donald W. McCaffrey
M*A*S*H, like many satires and black comedies, deals with such taboo areas as death (taken lightly or for profit) and sexual deviation (again, taken lightly as nightclub comedy of license or as an exposure of social prejudice). This film deals with both in one situation of a sequence that shows the picaresque duo, Hawkeye (played by Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (enacted by Elliott Gould), trying to cure the base hospital's dentist from his morose fears of homosexual leanings. The demented dentist wants to commit suicide, and through a ruse the final feast and adieu to the world is arranged. Director Altman shows the feast as an image of a parody of Leonardo da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper." The theme song, "Suicide Is Painless," accompanies this derivative gag. Luis Bunuel employed such a parody in his 1961 Viridiana in a satirical way: a collection of outcasts engaging in plunder and a gluttonous are transformed into an ironic pictorialization of the revered classic painting as the camera dollies back to reveal the derelicts in a similar pose. The copycat image is merely clever-the original, savage. And the sequence in M*A*S*H is concluded with a practical joke in reverse. The dentist does not die but is rescued on his deathbed by a nymphomaniac who proves he has all the conventional responses to be a fullblooded heterosexual-another cop-out for an essentially pregnant satirical situation.
Some attention has been given to M*A*S*H regardless of the quality of the adaptation or the quality of the film because it does represent a breakthrough of the times that would allow more significant films to be produced. The movement to present humor that went against the taboos was realized fully in this very popular film. The acceptance of these relatively new attitudes in a 1970 film was to have some social ramifications when a television version of the Altman-Lardner creation arrived on a previously more censored medium. Along with All in the Family the television series M*A*S*H would make some comic inroads into what was acceptable in the popular arts; thereby, leading to a more realistic, comic vision of our world.
M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker, Peter George's Red Alert, and Patrick Ryan's How I Won the War all received only passing recognition. But Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was another matter. The publisher's publicity pushed the fact that five million people had purchased the book. Many critics, with reservations, saw this novel as a revisionist satire on World War II-the most significant anti-war novel, cast in the humorous mode, since Eric Remarque's serious treatment, All Quiet on the Western Front. Consequently, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter-adapter Buck Henry were taking on more than anyone could chew in their 1970 film version.
While the cinema adaptation received mixed reviews, some critics saw it as a faithful translation of the novel. After seeing the movie for the second time, and getting around to reading the novel,* Vincent Canby praised the filmmaker's approximation of the novel's intent (New York Times, June 28, 1970, section 11, p. 1). One critic, Edmond Gross in Harper's Magazine (December 1970, p. 36), viewed the film as an improvement over the novel: "Nichols and Henry were intelligent enough to avoid being literal: as a result they could be faithful to the book. The book is long, the movie is short; the book was endlessly repetitive, the movie uses repetition sparingly; the book was sprawling, the movie is clean, tart, and elegant." This is not to indicate that these two critics did not find some faults in the adaptation, but they, more than others, seemed to see a successful rendition of the novel.
Directed by Robert Altman in 1970, it was low-budget, almost like an independent film within the studio. There were two other war films going on at the time, Patton and Tora Tora Tora. And they weren't really paying that much attention to what Robert Altman was doing, which was kind of good, because he was able to get away with a very unusual filmmaking style.
It was highly improvisational; the actors improvised a lot of the dialogue. Altman always works collaboratively in that fashion, and he was able to kind of get away with more than he would have been able to get away with if they had been paying attention to what he was doing. He kind of snuck it in under the radar.
It was not given a huge release; at the time obviously, we didn't have the alternate release forms like cable and DVD. So what they did instead was that if they had a low-budget film that would release on the drive-in circuit, and I first saw M*A*S*H at the drive-in. It was basically a drive-in movie, along with Easy Rider.
In the movie M*A*S*H, the character of Frank Burns is played by Robert Duvall. The character Hot Lips Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman, and the characters of Hawkeye and Trapper are played by Donald Sutherland, Keifer's Dad, and Elliott Gould, respectively. Trapper is given a lot more weight in the film, as he is in the book. Altman follows Richard Hooker's novel much more closely than the television show did.
Pay attention to how the loudspeaker functions in terms of the announcements that you're hearing.
Pay attention to the fragmented editing style, pay attention to--it's very episodic; it's got a very episodic editing structure.
Pay attention to the juxtaposition of humor and horror. That's a key element in a lot of the satire that we look at.
From Dr. Strangelove's America by Margot A. Henriksen
The culture of dissent in the early 1960s exploited the subversive power of laughter against the American past and the American system of power, and the many variants of humor employed-from satire and ridicule to fantasy and irony-shared a single mood: black. The rise of a cultural imagination tinged with black humor or with a comic-apocalyptic sensibility signaled the rise of a new cultural consciousness and a new cultural understanding of history and authority. The buoyancy and the disdain of this cultural mirth in the early sixties broke the constraints of fear and intimidation that had curtailed free expression in the late forties and fifties and loosed the spirit of iconoclasm that complemented the dominant mood of the rebellious sixties. The nurturing of a laughing spirit was the nurturing of a radical spirit-a spirit without fear and without respect for the demands of consensus and conformity. Humor exposed and deflated the crazed and serious rationality of the cold war past and present, and the blackness of the humor stemmed from a recognition of what nonetheless ultimately lay under the laughable rationality: death. Black humor offered a subversive alternative world view to America in the 1960s as it uncovered the corruption and insanity that had accompanied America's rise to power since World War II. Black humor matched both the explosive power and the deadly nihilism of the atomic bomb, and it announced the dawn of the cultural revolution that also finally matched the transforming power of the bomb.'
Three cultural productions from the early 1960s launched the comic crusade against history and the system: Heller's Catch-22, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962). These works provided more evidence about the nature of the cultural rebirth by exposing the dark reality of the past and of all systems of authority. They also posited the need for alternatives to that past and those systems, both in their innovative structural forms and themes and in their concrete representations of the changed state of mind in the 1960s. Writers in the civil defense debate, like Margaret Mead and Gerard Piel, had identified World War II and the cold war as the points of American departure from a more peaceful and moral view of life, and the black humorist perspective concurred. In Catch-22 Joseph Heller uses World War II as a backdrop to his novel's action in order to suggest that the war and the armed forces served as the generator of and the model for all such systems of authoritarian and bureaucratic control.
"Yes, there was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask. But as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and he would have to fly more missions."
Catch-22 also came out in 1970, directed by Mike Nichols, who directed The Graduate, Working Girl, Primary Colors, and The Birdcage.
The structure is fragmented, with flash forwards and flashbacks in time. It's a lot like Pulp Fiction in that respect; it really fragments your timeframe.
As a satire, this film's characters are more extreme than M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H depicts a more realistic portrayal of what actually went on in a M*A*S*H unit, even though it was somewhat insane. Catch-22 is so outrageous; the characters are really pushed and exaggerated and ridiculed, but it retains an incredibly dark quality, nonetheless. It's very humorous and has some extremely funny moments, but it is also very very dark.
It weaves three primary themes: the constant theme of man as beast, which you will always find in an anti-war film. The theme of absurdity; the absurdity of circumstances; the absurdity of life; the absurdity of existence; the absurdity of people in positions of power. And the inevitability of death.
It's set during World War II and a fighter base near Italy. Pilots are flying B17 missions; it's incredibly dangerous. Of all the fighter pilots that fought during World War II, 90% of them died. And they keep raising the number of missions required in order to be sent home. So the pilots are trapped in these circumstances.
That's Catch-22. It's a beauty.
Your protagonist is Capt. Yossarian, played by Alan Arkin, and he's the hero/antihero of the film and the novel.
Martin Balsam is Col. Cathcart and Buck Henry is Col. Korn, and they are the clownish people in charge, but everything is deceptive, they turn out to be dangerous.
Major Danby is a lower echelon who runs the briefing missions, and he is played by Richard Benjamin.
Yossarian's friends are Art Garfunkel as Capt. Nately. And Nately has a whore which plays a big part in the proceedings, so look for Captain Nately and Nately's whore.
Charles Grodin plays Capt. Aarfy Aardvark.
Marty Sheen in a very early role plays 1st Lt. Dobbs.
Jack Gilford, who used to do the Crackerjack commercials plays Doc Daneeka.
Bob Newhart plays--originally he is Captain Major but that's so confusing that they promote him to Major so he plays Major Major.
Anthony Perkins (Psycho) plays Chaplin Tappman.
Paula Prentiss, who was married to Richard Benjamin at the time, plays Nurse Duckett.
Jon Voight has the most bizarre character in this; he plays this very clean-cut American, all-American kid, blond, named Milo Minderbinder. Milo's the mess officer, who begins to create a syndicate out of the Mess supplies; he basically starts to engage in war profiteering; watch for the way that escalates and gets blown out of proportion.
Orson Welles has a small part as General Dreedle.
And look for Marcel Dalio as the Old Man in the whorehouse who gets to have the monologue which encapsulates the film.
When Major Major gets into his new office, pay attention to the photographs hanging on the wall, very carefully, because they change, and if you don't know that they are going to change, you will miss it completely.
There is a repeating scene, which is the thematic structure of the inevitability of death, which recurs throughout, and it's a character called Snowden. It works extremely well, because what happens is you see fragments of the scene, and each time it comes back, you see more of it. It played out a little further in time; Yossarian's interaction with this wounded boy Snowden. It functions like a repressed memory, in that way, because each time it---it comes back and he doesn't even want it to come back, but each time it comes back, he remembers a little bit more of it. It functions extremely well in tying the structure of the film together.
You're going to see some very jarring scenes at the very beginning of the film. Don't worry that you can't hear the dialogue, because you will come back to all of this; it will all be explained by the end of the film. This was very frustrating for audiences initially, they would miss a scene, not realizing that it actually played out in full towards the end of the film.