Wednesday, March 10, 2004

For some reason Oxblog's David Adesnik has chosen this moment to post a couple of long discussions of Robert Altman's 1972 film, M*A*S*H*. Even more strangely, Adesnik has focused primarily on the film's portrayal of the US military in wartime, as if that were the film's real topic.

It's been a while since I saw M*A*S*H*, but I still vividly remember the revulsion I felt as I watched it. Every now and then, you see, I encounter a film (Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and Jane Campion's The Piano are two others) which evokes in me the weird sensation of discovering an imaginary world completely misunderstood by its own creator. Most often, the filmmaker's sympathies lie with a fictional inhabitant of that world whose odiousness seems self-evident to me, despite the sympathetic presentation.

But the overpraised protagonist of The Piano is merely an obnoxious, self-centered harridan, and Crimes' loathesomely conscienceless main character is only shown in an ordinary, not admirable, light. The heroes of M*A*S*H*, on the other hand--and they are presented, unambiguously, as heroes--are genuine monsters, capable of truly immense cruelty. And the filmmaker clearly embraces, even glorifies that cruelty, because it is directed at those who are on the wrong side. As clear-eyed, politically aware subversives, Hawkeye and Trapper John are, suggests Altman, capable of recognizing the true bourgeois enemy, in the form of Burns and Houlihan--and fully justified in destroying them utterly, and without remorse.

This is a recurring theme in Altman's films--at least those I've been able to stomach watching: real morality--standing up for the right and the good against the world's evil masters--requires copious reserves of self-righteous ruthlessness, and those who are not prepared to break a few eggs (to borrow Stalin's locution) are mere dupes of the powers that be. In "Secret Honor", a little-known Altman film based on the one-man play by the same name, Richard Nixon is presented as a hero who, realizing that his administration is actually controlled by a shadowy, world-dominating "committee of 300" industrialists, decides to sabotage his own presidency, by instigating the Watergate scandal, in order to save himself and his country from the clutches of his puppet-masters. In other words, even the misdeeds of an arch-enemy like Nixon (as Altman no doubt sees him) would have been justified, in Altman's view, for the sake of the great struggle against the evil conspiracy of the world's ruling villains.

There was a time, of course, when Altman's brand of manichaeism was fairly popular. That was the heyday of leftist radicalism, in the seventies and early eighties, when international terrorism (from the PLO to the Red Brigades/Baader Meinhof group to the various Latin American "rebel" groups) was, for many, a form of romantic heroism, and murder and mayhem in the name of the right cause was wholly admirable. The fall of the Soviet Union dampened that spirit considerably, by reminding its adherents of the danger--and, perhaps more important, the futility--of brutality in the name of utopianism. After a couple of decades of dormancy, however, this terrorist ethos seems to be making a bit of a comeback in some circles, among whom Islamist terrorists and their various unsavory allies are treated as understandable, even sympathetic fighters against the true evil (that is, American/Israeli/Jewish/neoconservative/capitalist) conspiracy.

For example, Tim Robbins, a longtime Altman protege, has just written a play confidently identifying the primary evil conspiracy in the world--and it's not Al Qaeda. Rather, it's the late philosophy professor Leo Strauss and his alleged neoconservative disciples, who in Robbins' drama form a powerful cabal bent on world domination. It would be interesting to learn just what measures Robbins would countenance today, for the sake of defending the world from his neoconservative foes.

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