At some point, I’m going to write an essay on Robert Altman’s classic 1970 film “M*A*S*H” and how much this movie has meant to me over the years. It’s a film that seems even more shocking and subversive these days than it did when it first came out over 40 years ago. But the story behind the theme song “Suicide is Painless” is so damn interesting, it demands its own essay. Most people know the melody, as it played over the opening and closing credits of the TV show. But for those people who don’t know that the movie exists are usually genuinely shocked to hear that the theme actually has lyrics. Marilyn Manson once said that this is the most depressing song ever written. The lyrics are pretty despairing … but director Robert Altman would’ve probably said “Are you f–king kidding me?!?” to such sentiments.
The following story below is a summary of several anecdotes related in the positively amazing oral history / biography of director Robert Altman “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” by Mitchell Zuckoff. (What?!? You don’t have a copy of this amazing book ?!?)
The impetus for writing the song came from a scene in the middle of the film where a dentist character, a legendary cocksman of the medical unit, finds himself impotent when he hooks up with a woman and concludes that he’s gay. As a result, he wants to commit suicide. His friends think this is utterly ridiculous and treat the dentist’s desire to kill himself with absurd humor. They hold a “last supper” that’s framed in the same way as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting. Altman thought there was too much “dead air” in the scene and that it needed a song. Per Altman, “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written.” The composer, Johnny Mandel, said “Well, we can do stupid.” Altman said “There’s too much stuff in this 45-year old brain of mine. I can’t get anything nearly as stupid as I need. But all is not lost. I have this kid who is a total idiot. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.” Altman’s son Michael (who was reportedly 14 years old at the time) was asked by his father to write the lyrics and he wrote the lyrics in approximately 10 minutes. Altman’s son wrote some chords … Mandel added some others … and the song was a done deal.
For Michael’s trouble, he was paid $500 and 50% of the song. A few years after the movie came out, the TV series “M*A*S*H” came out and he got a check for $26. Then he received a second check for $130. And then the show went into syndication and Michael received a check for $26,000. And after all was said and done, Michael earned $2 million over the years for writing an allegedly really stupid song in just 10 minutes. To put this into perspective, his father Robert only received $75,000 for directing the movie … with no royalties or profits. Keep in mind that the movie “M*A*S*H” is considered one of the greatest film comedies ever made, was ranked #54 in the American Film Institute’s poll of the greatest American films ever made, was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry,won the Palme D’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and grossed the equivalent of $475 million in 2013 dollars.
Michael admitted that he squandered most of the money, failed to pay taxes because he was young and not money savvy, and then got into a lot of trouble with the IRS. Eventually, Michael had to declare bankruptcy and his father Robert bought the song for $30,000. So his father (and his estate) wound up with future royalties after the fact.
After several years, Michael admitted that he blames himself entirely for what happened and while that he’s written other songs, no others have been recorded or released. He advised by his standards, he never liked the song or was that impressed with it.
My friend Ryan- whose opinions I value as much or more than anyone else about movies- was recently singing the praises of the comedy in MASH (1970) to me when I was putting together my comedy flowchart. I’m ashamed to admit that as he was praising MASH, all I could remember from the first time I saw it was the overlapping dialogue and the Last Supper scene. In other words, I needed to re-watch it. Thanks to the fine folks at the Wildey Theater, I had my chance to re-watch it this past weekend, and on the big screen no less.
There are four major aspects that stood out to me during the re-watch, and there’s one major theme. That theme is that MASH is a counterculture classic. It represents the ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s youth perfectly. And that’s true of the film both from a technical standpoint and from a thematic standpoint.
The first major aspect is of course the irreverence. MASH is to comedies as The Wild Bunch is to westerns, demolishing the corny Hayes Code morality of the prior three decades with a sly grin. There are no sacred cows whatsoever. Religion is mocked a great deal, most notably in two scenes. The first is the hilarious rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” while Frank Burns kneels to pray, and the second is the entire Painless sequence. The second features the legendary Last Supper scene, followed by Painless rising from the dead, so to speak, only after a nurse has sex with him. That second part also speaks to the satire of sexuality. In addition to using the nurse to rouse Painless from his faux death, there’s also the memorable and riotous scene in which Radar slips the camp speaker under Burns’ bed during his tryst with Houlihan. Military hero worship takes it on the chin from director Robert Altman as well. These people are anything but heroic, at least not in the traditional sense. They honor the faux dead Painless with porn and booze. Later, we see members of the 325th smoking pot. Burns and Houlihan serve as the archetypes for the traditional military hero… and are made to look ridiculous at every turn of the film. Other counterculture issues addressed by Altman include race and drug use.
The second major aspect that demanded notice was the pacing. Altman employed several recurring bits that gave MASH a heartbeat. Chief among them was Hawkeye’s incessant whistling, a tune and pitch that Donald Sutherland (as Hawkeye) matched each time it was used. The PA system was used to signify transitions and add a dollop of humor, usually in reference to the hokey war films of past generations. And then there’s the surgery. Altman never let you forget what really happens during war, with bloody surgery tent scenes used as mile markers throughout the film. Throughout the film, it beats serious, and then it beats chaotic. Rinse, repeat.
“I wish they wouldn’t land those things here while we’re playing golf.”
In between all of those pacing mile markers was the third major aspect- the pure chaos. It manifests itself most notably in the overlapping dialogue, which adds a dose of realism to the film. People aren’t going to stop talking because someone else is talking in surgery. The film’s protagonists relish in beating up the rules, regardless of who establishes those rules. From a technical standpoint, Altman composed and edited the film chaotically to enhance the effect (I’ll touch on this a little more later).
All of those aspects segue nicely into the fourth and final aspect that I noticed- the surrealism. It grabs the audience immediately in the early (aforementioned) “Onward Christian Soldiers” scene. It’s used to great effect in the Last Supper sequence, as an entire group of army surgeons naturally fall right into the odd, unnatural behavior of mimicking the Last Supper, and Painless’ res/erection. When Houlihan’s tent is lifted mid-shower, exposing her true hair color, she storms into Colonel Blake’s office and threatens to resign her commission. Blake doesn’t give a damn, as he’s lying in bed with a blonde nurse, drinking wine. Again, this is presented as perfectly natural when it’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect in a military film of any sort.
To further the jarring effect of his deconstruction of classic military films, Altman reaches deep into the French New Wave bag of tricks. At various intervals, character discourse disappears completely and the audience is left only with the reactions of the characters to deduce what’s going on. The overhead shot that leads into the film and the initial tracking shot through the surgical tent are both very long. When Trapper and Hawkeye go to Japan, they’re seen speaking mock Japanese and their mouths are out of sync with the dialogue, presumably a humorous nod to poorly dubbed Japanese cinema. And the finale pokes at the fourth wall with a curtain call, via the PA system again, that announces the cast by name.
Ryan was right. Altman created a hilarious film, one with no reverence whatsoever for the social conventions of America in the late 1960s and early 70s. When I was a kid, I never understood why the VHS cover had a peace sign with a great set of legs. And now as an adult, I get it. Altman created the perfect counterculture film, strapping his comedy to the rotting corpse of hokey military heroism that had dominated the silver screen for some 30+ years. He earned points and laughs with nearly everything the counterculture held so dear. And that’s precisely why it’s a classic.
Filed under Movies
Tagged as counterculture movies, Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Frank Burns, Hawkeye Pierce, last supper scene, M*A*S*H, Movies, Robert Altman, Robert Duvall, Trapper