In M*A*S*H, Layers of Sound Convey the Chaos of War

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M*A*S*H was not the first film to satirize war –  the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup tackled the topic in 1933.
And Robert Altman was not the first director
to use layers of overlapping sound; Orson Welles, among others, had employed
the device decades earlier.
But the two
techniques serve one another particularly well in Altman’s third and most
commercially successful film.

With M*A*S*H, Altman was trying to represent real life, and to do away
with the artificial clarity of film dialogue. The loudspeaker announcements, the doctors
and nurses talking at once, and the sounds of sawing bone and clanking surgical
tools require an audience comfortable with (or at least, tolerant of) movie
multitasking. And Altman not only
presented concurrent conversations, he conflated fore and background, so that
it isn’t always apparent what we’re “supposed to” notice about what’s
going on onscreen.

Altman began using this technique back in the 1950s, shooting
advertisements in Kansas City. It wasn’t always well received:
Reportedly, he was fired from his first feature, Countdown, for letting
the actors talk on top of each other. Regardless, Altman would continue
to use cascading audio, all the way up to his last film, A Prairie Home Companion. Of his signature style, the director said “Sound is
supposed to be heard, but words are not necessarily to be heard. I am trying to divorce the audience somewhat
from literature and from theater, which is based on literature. In those areas it’s the words the character
uses that [are] important. I think in
film it’s what the character does not say, what you don’t hear.”

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