I caught part of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H on TCM the other night. I’ve always been a huge fan of the TV show, and I really like the film–although I can see why some folks who saw the show first would be put off by it. It’s black humor at its finest, with Altman’s signature style of vignettes and realistically overlapping chaos guiding the story of the lives of the personnel in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. (I will never call it a “police conflict” even though that was its official designation.) The movie was much more like the book, which I also read. The film and the book are vicious satires of war and social mores, although that was somewhat diluted by the charm of the series.
Here’s the context for the song: The 4077th’s dentist has decided to kill himself because he couldn’t, uh, perform one night. The surgeons, including Hawkeye and Trapper John, indulge his moment of vanity by setting up a fake good-bye party and giving him a “black pill” that is probably nothing more than a mild sedative. They all say their farewells while the song is sung (yeah, there are lyrics to go along with the ubiquitous melody). Later, Hawkeye convinces a nurse who’s going home to have sex with the dentist as a way to get him back in the saddle. This is apparently no hardship for anyone since the joke about the dentist is that he is, um, quite well-endowed. From the recreation of The Last Supper at the beginning, to the “resurrection” via sex at the end, the scene is perfectly played.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the name of the dentist up until now. If you’ve seen the movie, you already understand the double meaning of the song’s title. (If you haven’t, well, you should. It’s a great flick.) The dentist’s nickname? Painless.
Of course, the idea that “suicide is painless” is also ironic. There is nothing painless about suicide, for anyone involved. The somewhat nonsensical lyrics of the song and the smiling, easy to hum tune belie the reality of the act. Johnny Mandel wrote the music, while Robert Altman’s son Mike wrote the lyrics, which the director reportedly wanted to be as dumb as possible (Altman’s son was only fourteen when he co-wrote “Suicide is Painless” for his dad). Of course, the whole scene in the movie is about the unreality of this particular act, highlighted by the selfishly trivial reasoning behind it. The dumbness of the lyrics are actually a perfect fit for the dumbness of suicide.