Catch-22 (1970)

“That’s Some Catch”

I picked up a DVD copy of this film recently. It occurred to me that I had never seen it on the big screen, nor had I seen it in its wide screen presentation. My impression of this film has come to me from an old VHS that was at the AFTRS library that must have been made in the early 1980s. It was pan-and-scan 4:3 with an atrocious contrast level and in retrospect, hardly captured the film. Thanks to some fine modern transfer technology this film has come back from the dead quite nicely.

Also, no spoiler alert today. It’s an old movie, I’m not going to protect you from my spoiling tendencies. If you haven’t read the book, go read it; if you haven’t seen the film in one form by now, me writing about it here ought not to spoil anything for you.

What’s Good About It

My memory of this film was how disappointing it was in that it failed to capture the entirety of the sprawling novel. Instead it connects up the more jocular and snappy moments into a book and with a non-linear narrative working in its favor, it managed to shoehorn most of the themes into the film, only just.

The good news for me is that time and distance from the novel has helped me look at the film as just the film, and actually, it’s a really good rendering of the book. If you washed away all the curlicues and arcane digressions of the book and condensed the action of the book, it might just be what is in the film. And the film today is quite a magnificent work of cinema.

The directing and camera work are staggeringly imaginative, the choreographed scenes of people talking on runways with immense background action are astounding. The characterisation from the book of the various pilots are fascinating to watch and stand in contrast to the verbosity of the book. The characters are shown succinctly as the film follows the action.

What’s also good about the DVD is how you can see it all for the first time in a long time. The shots that didn’t make any sense in 4:3 come to us with this pristine 16:9 full frame that couches the 1:1.85 widescreen much better. It really feels like an entirely different film. Watching this reminds me of the time I saw ‘Taxi Driver’ on the big screen for the first time after having watched it on VHS for many years. It’s a revelation.

There are some amazing actors working together in this film. Orson Welles heads the list of the amazing cast; there’s Jon Voight in his sparkling youth playing Milo Minderbinder; Martin Sheen as Dodds; Bob Balaban as Orr; Art Garfunkel as Nately; Anthony Perkins as the Chaplain (a nod to ‘Psycho’); Martin Balsam as Colonel Cathcart (another nod to ‘Psycho’); Richard Benjamin as Major Danby; Charles Grodin as Aarfy; and to top it all off is Alan Arkin as Yossarian.The funny thing is that way back when I watched this on VHS, I was mostly unmoved by the casting because these guys weren’t *my* choice of 1970 all-stars, but watching this version made me realise the genius of the all-star casting. These guys rock in this film. Or maybe acting has gone down the gurgler a long way since 1970.

It’s worth it just to see any old scene from the film. The scene with Yossarian naked in the tree and Voight’s Milo trying to get him to appreciate chocolate coated cotton is priceless.

Director Mike Nichols was criticised greatly for this film at the time of its release. It came out the same year as ‘MASH’ and was compared less favorably.Some critics went so far as to say the non-linear narrative was disjointed and said the only good thing about it were the aerial sequences. In hindsight the film has survived better than ‘MASH’, partly thanks to the memory of ‘MASH’ getting obliterated by the long-running TV series, but also because of the universality of concern in this film is just that little bit more enduring.

Contrary to the critics who complained, the script is surprisingly tight by 1970 standards. The film makes a decent 3 act structure out of the miasma that is Heller’s book and it makes internal sense. It’s like fine wine kept in the cellar it’s bloody brilliant after all this time, and perhaps even more so because of the passage of time. Alan Arkin’s Yossarian is superlative.

What’s Bad About It

Alas, one thing that just cannot be brought up to date is the audio. This thing sounds pretty mediocre in parts and plain awful in others. It probably deserved a full audio scrub up because the mix is hampered by the source recording and some of the source recording isn’t too crash hot. You’d think they might have done more ADR, but this is before Hollywood went in for ADR-ing *everything*. It’s quaint, but audio-wise it shares more in common with ‘Casablanca’ than anything after ‘Star Wars’.

That’s the tragedy of how far we’ve come that a film like this just sounds so dated, and it’s not the film’s fault, it’s not the audio guys’ fault; it’s just the limitations of the technology they had back then.

Also, it’s tone is different from the book. If you’re a fan of the book, you might not like the tone in this film – I didn’t when I first saw it – but if you look at it as its own thing, you should see a lot to like in it.

What’s Interesting About It

It’s quaint to see the 1960s liberal anti-war sentiment cast on the screen. Shot at the height of the Vietnam War,  the anti-war sentiment of the film is as probing as it is as searching. I wrote about ‘Come And See’ a couple of weeks ago as a Soviet Russian propaganda film, but here is a film that comes from the heart of the American propaganda machine that seriously casts doubt towards America’s military’s sanity.

The tepid embrace of America while trying to question the sanity of military violence stands in stark contrast to the casual, unthinking acquiescence in this decade’s ‘The Hurt Locker’. The spiritual crisis of America is there to be seen on widescreen, naked raw and sad. The film is like a cipher that leads us back to a point in time when the idealism mattered – and I”m not saying this in praise of the Woodstock Generation or any of that Babyboomer crap – I’m saying this as a plain observable facet of this film.

I don’t know if Hollywood could make this film today. Then again I doubt they could make ‘Midnight Cowboy’ today. Which brings me to the next interesting thing about this film…

Jon Voight’s Journey To The Right

Jon Voight used to be the sine qua non liberal dude. His roles were filled with the left-leaning, questioning of the establishment as it stood in the 1970s. To all intents and purposes he was that dude in ‘Coming Home’ for which he won his Oscar. Recently he has emerged as somebody speaking on behalf of Republicans and the Tea Party, which is really sad. Somewhere along the way he has changed into this hectoring right wing voice – which is his prerogative – but when you watch this film and see that liberal dude on the screen again, it fills you with this immense sadness.

When you read portions of his own explanation, there’s something to it – that you can understand his disillusion with the Left in America politics. He is also highly suspicious of Marxist ideology itself and this is not surprising because he’s a rich white man. Why would he, or how could he stay with the ideology of the weak and the oppressed underdog? How could he keep doing that and not feel hypocritical? It’s not hard to imagine the reasons for his drift to the Right.

Be that as it may, Jon Voight as the mercenary and psychotically mercantile Milo Minderbinder in this film is just beautiful. Milo is a harbinger of the America to come; or rather the America that did manifest itself as if ‘manifest destiny’ itself and promptly drove the world into the ditch of the GFC.

Orson Welles As General From Hell

I love Orson Welles. He’s always great to watch, even in his latter crappy roles, like the one in ‘Casino Royale’ with David Niven as James Bond (and Woody Allen as little Jimmy Bond). He sort of suffered his way through these roles in the latter part of his career, but he is exquisite as the gruff, banal and violently ill-tempered General Dreedle.

There are echoes of the General Patton of George C. Scott as well as echoes of his own ‘Citizen Kane’.

In 1970, Welles was at the final crossroads of his life. They were handing him awards for his past work and yet not giving him anything to do as a director. In the busy crossfire of his own life, this small part of playing General Dreedle was probably just a minor paying gig along the road on the way to him making another film for himself that he cared about. Yet, watching him in this film is something joyous and a fine bit of mirth-making. He may have had the best comic sensibility amongst all of these stars.

Is That You Charles Grodin?

Another beautiful character is Aarfy as played by Charles Grodin. Aarfy is the affable psychopath who ends up raping and murdering a girl, but manages to stay un-indicted. Charles Grodin plays him with such charm that makes you forget what he ends up doing in the book, until it happens on the screen. Together with Voight’s Milo, Grodin’s Aarfy is the other cipher of the America to come, the precursor to Brett Easton Ellis’  ‘America Psycho’ and all the scandal of the 1980s. It’s amazing how far-sighted Heller was in the first place, but Grodin adds so much to that portrait.

Nately, Dodds And Orr

Art Garfunkel as Natley is priceless in its irony. It’s no accident that the man with the beautiful voice of Simon and Garfunkel, representing the folk movement of the 1960s dons the uniform of the US Army and engages in the paradoxical conversation with the old man about strength and survival. The scene cuts deeper than all the rest in its poignancy, especially because history since 1970 has born out the scene. America in its highest ideals gave way to something a lot less savory to survive, even over the protesting loud voices of well-meaning people.

Martin Sheen as Dodds is surprising to watch today. He’s so young he looks like and sounds like his sons. A decade before ‘Apocalypse Now’ playing Captain Willard, here he is playing one of the more benign characters in ‘Catch-22’. It’s almost as if Dodds disappears into the fiery night where Milo bombs his own base, only for the same guy to turn up in Vietnam, a decade later.  Maybe some of these roles are interesting to watch today because of the subsequent careers these men had. Bob Balaban’s Orr is similarly interesting. There’s a particular charm about Balaban that is endearing to watch, and it’s already vibrantly on display in this film. It’s such an appropriate piece of casting it’s uncanny.

The Psycho-Factor

Psychology and psychosis must have played a large part in the zeitgeist back in the 1960s. There’s ‘Psycho’ which starred Anthony Perkins and Martin Balsam, who are both in this film. There’s one scene where they are face to face, which cannot but remind us of the scene where Balsam’s detective interrogates Perkins’ psycho. Balsam as Cathcart just lays into Perkins’ Chaplain in this film and it has a strange inter-textual funniness to it.

What’s sort of interesting is that Alan Arkin goes on to play a psychiatrist Dr. Oatman in ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’,  Bob Balaban goes on to play a therapist in ‘No Reservations’ and Charles Grodin ends up in ‘Couch Trip’ as Dr. Maitlin. In each instance of their subsequent films, they’re playing guys who don’t seem to be in complete grips of themselves, harking to the craziness of ‘Catch-22’.

Alan Arkin’s Yossarian

It goes without saying that to front for this stellar cast needs a strong actor and Alan Arkin is exactly that. Yossarian is a kind of whiney conscientious objector type, but Arkin gives Yossarian a serious toughness that translates into his determination not to fly any more missions. An example of this is how the premature dropping of bombs on Ferrara is portrayed as Arkin’s Yossarian turning into a refuse-nik on board the lead bomber. In the book, this is just one of the many strange anecdotes that leads to another weird scene where Yossarian receives a medal, naked.

In the film, however, the premature dropping of the bombs comes not a moment of pique but as a realisation on Yossarian’s part that some of the violence in war is definitely gratuitous and he is refusing to take part in it. By this leading to the scene where he accepts the medal for his bad execution emphasises the anti-war thinking behind this film. In that sense the film is far more pointed and motivated than the book about objecting to war, and it is Arkin’s strong portrayal of Yossarian that bolsters this strong objection.

The Yossarian in the book is a great unbeliever who is questioning everything because he cannot find a faith to hang his heart upon, amidst the terror of fighting a war. In the film, Yossarian actually has a strong moral conviction about how wrong war is and how he no longer wants to take part. Clearly it was a film of its times, and it is hard to imagine Hollywood coming up with this line of thinking in this day and age. (they come up with Pro-War propaganda such as ‘The Hurt Locker’ instead and shower it with Best Picture). All the more this film goes to show what a special moment in time the 1960s and 1970s were, when it comes to cultural consciousness.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema, Film, Movies

One response to “Catch-22 (1970)

  1. Starts out pretty funny, gets incredibly weird by the end. I loved how the comedy still holds up pretty well especially in today’s day and age, but I still need to read the source material. Good review, check out mine when you can!

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