Anent nothing (or actually, anent a long, chewy series of Tweets by David Rothkopf about the way a certain class of people in our society–guess whom?* gets a pass for treating people badly–which the author calls Asshole Culture) I started thinking about M*A*S*H. Not the beloved TV show where many of the most despicable characters turn out to to be people who can learn not to be despicable (or are revealed to be secretly not despicable, etc.) and in which the remaining despicable people get their comeuppance before the end of the 22-minute episode. Who doesn’t love Alan Alda?
No, I’m talking about the 1970 Robert Altman film with Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as the focal characters–Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre. In 1970 I was still in high school; the zeitgeist was (at least if you were young, or at least if you were me) irreverent and disruptive. I saw M*A*S*H a couple of times. I loved it. Here were two guys who were forced to be somewhere they didn’t want to be, and found colorful, disruptive ways to express their dismay and to flout authority whenever authority raised its head (and seriously: the Army in 1953–what’s not to flout?). They were heroes! Up the revolution. Etc.
When it aired a couple of years ago I thought “Hey, haven’t seen this in forever. I’ll watch it!”
It was unbearable.
It’s got an amazing cast: in addition to Sutherland and Gould there’s Robert Duvall, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, and Rene Auberjenois, among many others (my lifelong crush on Donald Sutherland probably started here). And the individual episodes are mostly funny. Except that Pierce and McIntyre, in particular, spend the entire of the film being assholes. It’s not that their situation–drafted, in Korea, in a war that seems to be organized via clown-car, fighting for an abstract cause among people whose pompous self-importance can be infuriating–doesn’t beg to be treated to black comedy that points out the absurd. It’s that these characters make the lives of everyone around them, particularly the less powerful ones–the nurses and orderlies, the local kids–a misery. Their essential message is “I don’t want to be here, and I”m going to take it out on everyone else.” And the film wholeheartedly endorses this; suggests that it’s admirable. Way to develop a coping mechanism, guys!
In 1970 there were a lot of films that took this stance: anything that undermined the dominant order was good. Stick it to the man. Etc. Except that in most cases the people doing the sticking were younger versions of the same as the people they were sticking it to: cisgendered white men. Women are treated either as compliant sexual receptacles or as foils. And the foils are, essentially, Mean Mommies who use the rules to foil our free-spirited heroes.
Our free-spirited heroes are assholes. They have their kindly moments (mostly toward other cis white men) but for them it is always appropriate to treat someone in authority–especially women in authority–with contempt. And because these guys are doctors, and apparently good ones (“We’re the pros from Dover,” one of them says as he bulls past a nurse, using an umbrella like a fencing foil) they are suffered, even by other cis white males in authority, to be assholes. As Rothkopf puts it, “Entitled, wealthy, bros who take what they want, treat everyone around them like shit and then rise to positions of power is practically a cliche it’s so common.”
The message of M*A*S*H the film is “if Daddy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy.” And decades later the sight of grown men taking out their anger on everyone around them is not liberating, it’s unbearable.
*White males. I don’t want to bash white males as a class–I’m married to one, and most of the excellent people I know who are white and male are emphatically not assholes, except on an occasional, everyone-has-those-moments basis–but the bad apples ruin things for the rest of the guys.