Many of the novels’ fans unjustly malign the film adaptation, because Catch-22 is without a doubt one of the most accomplished and biting film adaptations there is. The novel as is, is almost unconvertible to the big screen, and Buck Henry organizes a series of vignettes and character stories in order to best explore comedy, the absurdity of war, and the dangers of capitalism.
The film’s structure is difficult to describe, at first dream-like and fragmented, it soon becomes clear that there is a natural comedic and thematic progression of each scene. The comedy begins lightly, slight absurdum, obvious jokes about sex, and the crucial, and ironically humour explanation of the Catch-22. However, with each progressive scene, it becomes more difficult to laugh. The audience is presented with a scenario that begins as little more than a sketch, but dissolves into tragedy or horror, putting a very strange taint on the audience’s understanding of the situation. This is thematically crucial, as one of the film’s main thesis’ is about the higher-ups and capitally motivated industries understanding of war, and how they perceive soldiers to be expendable.
There is a series of scenes towards the mid range of the film, that is perhaps the most beautifully orchestrated I’ve ever seen in cinema. It begins with the longest comedic beat in film history (I can only assume), as Orson Welles stands shocked, in awe and bewilderment as the naked Yossarian stands before him waiting for his medal for bombing the Mediterranean. This for Yossarian is rock bottom, and beyond this point, the film quickly becomes a strange pastiche of quick vignettes and strange nightmare like sequences bringing the ideas of corruption, capital and absurdity to well… absurd heights. With a very deft match-cut (nearly every scene transition in the film is a rather clever match-cut using sound or imagery, somehow it never gets old and is always quite amusing), the scene cuts to Yossarian in bed with the beautiful Luciana. Their scenes together are an incredible joy, the most human genesis of the absurd nature of human relationships and compromise. They argue playfully in bed about getting married, and come back to the idea of the catch-22. It’s very clever, and always sweet. The light and romantic nature almost seems out of place, but at the same time, it’s almost miraculous how much chemistry and affection exists between Arkin and Carlisi, that a later scene where she becomes a part of the syndicate, becomes so much colder and painful. All the warmth of humanity has evaporated, and of course, the scene that follows that is chilling. Back to them in bed, this match-cuts to Nately and his whore, and the old man who explains why Italy is the strongest nation of all. It’s one of the most incredible monologues in cinema. Not only potent in it’s writing, but the delivery, almost delirious, drunk on life and humour is awe-inspiring. As frightening as it is amusing.
The film’s final act, is a strange and detached world, where Milo’s syndicate has finally taken over. War is no longer about ideals and fighting for one’s country (was it ever about that? A question both the novel and the film ask), but about making as much money as possible. Human life is expandable, not only physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. There is the incredibly evocative and disturbing scene where they blow up their own base, as they made a deal with the Germans to get that job done, as long as the Germans take the cotton off of Milo’s hands. It ends up costing one soldier his life (for the “greater good”), which is handled with an almost too on the nose sequence, where Milo explains the money will be sent to the man’s family (Yossarian answers, he’s too young to have started a family!), to which Milo says, well to his parents then! (Yossarian answers, they’re already rich!) and without a blink, Milo answers “they will understand then”. There is also Milo’s brothel, taking in the whores and women from the street in a sort of mechanical set-up to be as efficient as possible. It drives one man to murder, but it’s a necessary risk, and there is no perceived crime, only damaged collateral.
Catch-22 is actually one of my very favourite films. I suppose I’ve explained in part why, the delicious comedy, the biting satire and the ruthless criticism of capitalism, but beyond that, I find something comforting in Yossarian himself. A man who is beyond just a little neurotic and crazy, surrounded by people who are so much more insane than he is. He has simple desires, he doesn’t want to die, he wants love and happiness, but mostly… he doesn’t want to die. It’s something that’s difficult not to relate to. He’s been called annoying and off-base from the novel, but I think his reactions are on the money, and you have those scenes with characters like Luciana that reveal he is anything but a broad caricature. He just seems to see things more clearly than everyone else (well nearly everyone), though ironically it is his need for self-preservation that prevents him from being truly saved. Somehow, I find both his crazed paranoia, and confused clarity incredibly endearing, and I’d even say comforting. It’s a strange film to watch to make you feel at ease, but it somehow works for me, I’d say largely due to his presence.
Beyond that, nearly everyone and everything comes together just right to make this film work, from the impeccable casting, to Buck Henry’s knowing and spot on screenplay, to Nichols’ careful direction. The film is also unnecessarily beautiful, it almost seems like an act of pure vanity on the filmmaker’s part to make it look so good, though I shouldn’t really complain about that! I don’t think I could really name something about this film I dislike, though I’m sure it has it’s faults, I just don’t care about them.