By Chris Gallagher
I’ve always been a fan of American cinema. It’s kind of hard to escape the clutches of the Hollywood machine. The capitalist juggernaut that cynically uses film as a commodity to make money.
From Transformers to whatever turd of a film Adam Sandler is making, Hollywood sucks the art out of film to make an hour-long product placement, targeting kids like the neo capitalist fascists they are.
Okay, maybe that’s an over simplification of modern Hollywood, after all there are a raft of great Independent films released on a yearly basis but the point still stands regarding the Blockbuster market. It’s overinflated and most of the time lacks any sort of genuine creativity.
The Hollywood Renaissance period saw a new wave of films being produced in America just like similar movements in France, Britain and Germany. It is one of my favourite periods in American cinema and one that saw the establishment of some of my cinematic heroes like Woody Allan and Robert Altman.
The late 1960’s saw a rebirth of creative ideas in Hollywood with the development of a new filmmaking culture. Hollywood was losing money, with the traditional genre features like the Western and the Musical not generating as much profit as they had previously. The studios had not moved with the times and the late 1960’s were proving to be disastrous for the moneymen, something needed to be done.
Changes to the Production Code, allowed filmmakers the ability to depict more gritty realism in their projects. Scenes of violence and drug taking could now be shown, as could more sexual content. The Hollywood Renaissance had begun with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and it focused on themes far gone from the Classic Hollywood style.
Classic Hollywood was all about community, togetherness and the search for happiness. The new Hollywood form was focused on the individual, was less goal driven and had a focus on the youth driven counter culture of the day.
Hollywood saw a cinema of auteurs begin to emerge with a shift in power between the dominant studio hierarchy and the filmmakers. The European influence on Hollywood saw a more oblique and equivocal style of storytelling with the focus more on character over narrative.
The director was painting a picture with his lens and showing the individual struggle in a post war capitalist world. The influence of Goddard, Truffaut and other key European auteurs on the young American ‘film school generation’ was plain for all to see.
A film that exemplifies the key philosophies of the Hollywood Renaissance is the 1970 Robert Altman film MASH. It focuses around doctors working at a mobile hospital unit during the Korean War. The flippant movement between serious situation and the banality of every day punctuates Altman’s anti-war sentiment.
MASH is driven by character, leading to a less goal driven narrative, which was one of the main focuses of the Hollywood Renaissance. A looser plot allows the audience to understand the true nature of the characters motivation, which in the case of MASH is to detach from the horrors of war.
The difference in narrative sees MASH focused on who the characters are rather than where they are going. The standard blockbuster narrative is more goal-orientated and uses the characters as a conduit to push the fast paced narrative along.
Altman created his own style while shooting MASH, allowing the cast to improvise part of their performance while following them around to get as natural a representation on screen as possible. This new voyeuristic style was innovative and these key elements showed Altman as being one of the most original auteur directors in America.
A use of long lenses and a key focus on sound design, allowed Altman to develop his characters in a more realistic way by not interfering in their interactions and allowing them to talk over one another.
Altman uses screen space to show the powerful landscape of war and it’s effect, filling every shot with chaotic scenes, from an overzealous American football game to the madness of the operating theatre. This allows the audience to make their own mind up as to what they should follow or take from a scene.
Altman fills the on screen space with a chaotic Mise en scène to juxtapose the futility of war with the banality of everyday life.
Creative and Commercial Success
In terms of creativity, MASH managed to tap into the American people’s subconscious and embodied their unhappiness with the war in Vietnam. MASH was a success at the box office ranking in $81.6 million dollars, having cost £3.5 million, according to the website Box Office Mojo. Both creatively and commercially, MASH was a complete success and Altman had made a biting satire.
Mark Cousins comments that ‘Dissidence did not have to be box office poison, however. MASH was as bitter about War films as The Last Movie was about westerns but was a huge box office success.‘
The anti-establishment ethos of the film hit a nerve with the movie going audience at the time and by playing with the expectation level, Altman managed to make a successful anti-war war film. It was a critical success, and won Oscar for best screenplay as well as the Palme d’Or and a golden globe.
As Schneider says in his book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die ‘The release of MASH led to a wave of acclaim cresting with a number of Academy Award nominations, and a successful television spinoff, immediately cementing Altman’s reputation.’
MASH is a true classic that challenged filmmaking conventions of the day and caught the pulse of a war weary nation. Altman took out all references to Korea and instead allowed the audience to interpret the film in their own way. It was critically and commercially successful and showed Hollywood could be just as daring and innovative as any other film market in the world.