Catch 22

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

It’s a truism that Catch 22 is an inky black comedy about the madness and absurdity of war, though it plays with much bigger themes.  It equally applies its gloriously circular logic to the themes of the madness and amorality of capitalism, and indeed the madness of life and death, notably the insanity of survival.  The ultimate irony is that the only sane person in a cast of glorious characters is Yossarian, and in order to survive he has to prove himself madder than anyone else.  In Joseph Heller‘s classic novel it plumbed the depths of madness and absurdity, is awash with paradoxes, such that filming said novel was always said to be impossible in any form an audience would want to see.

And it’s true, this is only a partially successful adaptation by Buck Henry (also chain-smoking Colonel Korn in the movie) and direction by Mike Nicholls.  Where it succeeds is the delivery of dry wit in a deadpan style worthy of Leslie Nielsen.  It struggles largely with the frenetic, almost farcical pace measured against the juxtaposition of what Wikipedia describes as “gritty, almost horrific, realism” while not having the time or the narrative structure to provide context.

In fact, the context in 1970 was the American public satisfaction with the madness of Vietnam, so the biggest paradox of all was the relative failure of Catch 22 at the box office, where MASH, released in the same year, charmed the socks off the audience.   You suspect that the bitter tone of Catch 22 may well have left Joe Public somewhat perplexed.  This is a shame, because Heller’s one-liners are written with an exquisite mastery of the English language that few have bettered.  Consider these delicious examples:

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”

“Insanity is contagious.”

“It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”

In fact, this does a disservice to Nicholls, who corrals and attempts to captures some the anarchy of the novel without ever truly attempting to contain it.  One significant component of that anarchy is the unannounced time shifts backwards and forwards to create multiple sources of tension, which in the scheme of things is probably one way to retain interest and avoid dull patches in the movie, but may well add to the confusion as the audience pieces together the visual jigsaw puzzle.

The secret is seeing the whole panorama of madness and putting it in context, so to get the best of Nicholls’ version you have to enjoy the glimpses of absurdity and go along for the ride.  Those paradoxical glimpses into madness include the delightfully named Major Major Major Major, who can be seen only when he is not in his office, and Milo Minderbinder doing a deal with the Germans whereby the Americans bomb their own base.

Go see – there are plenty more absurdities on offer.  They are worth seeing even if the whole doesn’t quite hang together, as is a fine cast including the likes of Alan Arkin as the bemused Yossarian, Martin Sheen, Bob Newhart, Jon Voight (as Milo), Art Garfunkel, Anthony Perkins (almost a benign adaptation of Norman Bates) and especially the heavyweight cameo from Orson Welles as a deranged general.

So in conclusion, a brave attempt that doesn’t quite come off, but certainly worth the effort.  Maybe the next satirical classic will become an authentic classic, but at least this one gets pretty close to the true mayhem and underlying insanity of war.

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