Film #24 in the World War II Marathon, or maybe it’s 22, wait, nope, it’s 24, wait, I’m so confused!
Screenplay By: Buck Henry
Directed By: Mike Nichols
I’m not surprised that Catch-22 was met with a great amount of derision when it was released, and I say that not because Mike Nichols directed the awful The Graduate and thus his next effort should have been awaiting derision. I’m not surprised by the derision because of the time when Catch-22 was released and the subject matter it contains. I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of the Western Hemisphere in the early 1970’s, but I think it’s fairly easy to surmise that a black comedy about World War II released when this side of the planet was ensconced in a bloody and bewildering war wouldn’t be met with open arms. Anti-war is one thing, but anti-war that appears to make fun of war and does so in a nonsensical way isn’t something the masses are open to at the best of times, let alone during a time of political turmoil and endless war.
Given some time to think about Catch-22 I think that any number of people would find that it is a film that is very deserving of a second chance. It’s a very unique black comedy, so unique in fact that it may not even be a comedy, I’m still not decided on that. Catch-22 is a crazy film, that much I am sure of, but what makes me question the film as a black comedy is the way I have chosen to interpret said craziness. The crazy found in Catch-22 isn’t the typical war is hell kind of crazy, well, it is but not in a slapstick or heavy handed way. The crazy found in Catch-22 instead is a sort of descent into madness, and that is why I question the films status as a black comedy. It’s funny for sure, but the theme came across to me as one of ordinary men losing their senses and slowly descending into a state of madness thanks to what the machine of war does to them. By looking at the film that way all the crazy acts take on a more sinister meaning, so like I said, it’s a black comedy, but it also isn’t.
Catch-22 is a series of set pieces, that is true, but it’s set piece format works with the dream like nature, except for one sequence I will touch upon later, and absurdest situational humor that the film employs from start to finish. Each character takes on a meaning within each individual set piece. The only real constant is that of Yossarian as portrayed by Alan Arkin. Outside of his character the other characters shift and change as each new set piece requires, because Catch-22 is a symbolic movie. What we see on screen isn’t a true reality, but rather think of the screen as one huge allegory for so many other things. The padre for instance represents religion in war time, and he is inept and ineffectual. Milo represents big business, the only true profiteer to be found in a war. In some ways the symbolism found in Catch-22 is obvious, but it runs so deep into the picture that it goes beyond the obvious level and becomes a living breathing organism within the heart of the film.
For as much as I did love Catch-22 I could have done without a few tidbits, notably Yossarian’s journey through hell that was more of a Fellini ripoff than a homage as well as the weak ending. The journey sequence takes place through the streets of Italy and it isn’t filmed badly nor does it lack a sense of purpose, it’s simply too heavy handed and unoriginal. The ending on the other hand reminded me too much of my previous Nichols film, The Graduate. It isn’t a real ending, it doesn’t seek to provide closure to the film, instead it seeks to abruptly end the film and not give the viewer a chance to fully comprehend what they have just seen. I think Catch-22 is a film that the viewer needs to fully take in and an ending that wants to shoo the viewer to a different place as quickly as possible works against that intake.
I didn’t expect to love Catch-22 as much as I did or to be taken by its symbolism or delivery of story. Not to beat a dead horse, but I was so underwhelmed and downright appalled by the film making in The Graduate that I haven’t made any time for another Nichols film in my movie watching endeavors since I wrote about The Graduate almost a year ago. If not for this marathon it may have been even longer till I gave Nichols another chance, but having seen Catch-22 I can safely say that Nichols has no shown me something as a filmmaker. I don’t know whether to recommend Catch-22 to you as a black comedy or a symbolism treatise, but either way I recommend you give Catch-22 a chance, I highly recommend it.