The film MASH is a comedy that, in a series of gags, degrades a determined, professional woman into an imbecilic girl. This fact does not destroy the movie. The essential point of the film, the insight into humour as a compulsive and necessary reaction to tragedy, passes by unscathed. The only consequence of this unfortunate character arc is that the film is decidedly less funny now than it was in the 70s. So then, so what?
After all, the movie was made in and set during a time when the onscreen presentation of women had not become quite as big an issue as it has today. That doesn’t excuse MASH, but it might invalidate criticising the film in light of modern sexual politics. If criticism is to fairly judge the quality of art, is a critic allowed to evaluate according to belief systems that held comparatively less influence in the artists’ culture?
Well there’s theoretical replies to be made to this query, concerning the nature of criticism as necessarily subjective, and how all-pervasive sexism or racism actually was in past milieu (The Thin Man is a mystery/comedy made in an era where onscreen married couples had to sleep in separate beds, and there’s not a lick of sexist humour there). But I want to dispense with these (check out MovieBob for a more in depth discussion), in favour of a simpler reply. It mattered to me. MASH wanted me to laugh at the degradation of Major O’Houlihan. I laughed at the first gag, because her officiousness deserved pranks. I stopped when the ‘pranks’ became undeserved humiliation, as Major O’Houlihan was rechristened Hot Lips, as her nakedness became a show for the men, as the competent, uniformed nurse was made into an idiotic cheerleader with her hair in girl’s bunches. That’s simply not funny, no matter how thematically consistent or well-shot or scored MASH is. It is not funny.
Devin Faraci once wrote an article expressing his concern over the idea that 48fps might become the new industry standard for film. He felt that by redefining the visual standard in such a way, the industry risked cutting its audience off from past movies in a manner even more drastic than that which occurred naturally. Quote:
‘For the last few decades it’s been tough getting younger film fans to watch black and white movies. People raised on color films have an almost automatic reaction to black and white as old fashioned and archaic. Forget silent movies – almost nobody watches silent film for fun anymore. And those are just the big technical changes in film history – anyone showing a pre-1980s movie to people of a certain age will find them recoiling against the pacing and camerawork; other younger viewers are repelled by the pre-Method style of acting in colorful 1940s and 50s films.’
In essence, the form art takes is determined by the context in which it is made. If that context is particularly different to the context in which future audiences exist, the art from ages past can feel alien and is therefore less moving. Well, that’s not a phenomenon totally associated with craft.
It is no hyperbole to say that We Today are living through one of the most significant cultural revolutions humanity has ever experienced, thanks to our simultaneous assault on racism, sexism and homophobia . Gradually, step by achingly slow step, we are dragging ourselves away from a culturally dominant belief in the inequality of gender, race and sexual orientation. However as we do so, the non-purposeful racist, sexist and homophobic aspects of older artworks are going to lose the veneer of acceptability they had when the artwork was made. MASH may still work as a comedy for the most part, but to modern eyes that movie is now a damn sight less funny than it once was. Nor is it the only movie that will suffer in the new context.
So, what do we do? Obviously we cannot abandon our film history, no matter how alienating it becomes. But neither do I believe that we can ignore the sins of the past. Objective criticism becomes nonsense when it requires me to override a gut reaction and claim an emotion that was not felt, simply because people watching 40 years ago might have felt that way. The only way forward is to be clear headed about the art of the past. Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus may state ‘Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace/Aaron will have his soul black like his face’ but my dislike for the imagery does not destroy my affection for the gore of the play. The proper response to the new alienation is to abandon the concept of the one-sided reaction. It is rare now that we will ever be able to look back on the past and say ‘that is all good’ or ‘that is all bad’. Our reactions will be qualified into complexity, but such complexity, I believe, will serve to make our opinions all the more worthwhile.