Film Stuff

Day 22: Catch-22 (1970)

Released at the same time as M*A*S*H in 1970, Catch-22 suffered in comparison with Robert Altman’s radical war satire, which heralded a new and uncompromising method of film-making. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), even the director, Mike Nichols admitted as such: “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch-22…It just cut us off at the knees”. Following trumping his rival at the box office, Robert Altman put up a sign in his office saying: “Caught-22”.

I’m not going to argue with the box office (and I haven’t seen M*A*S*H, so I can’t comment), but Catch-22 doesn’t have the hallmarks of a flop. It’s a sharp, smart, jet black comedy pillorying the absurdity of war. The central conundrum of Catch-22 roughly equates to the following:

if you’re mad, you’re automatically grounded, but in order to be certified mad, you have to request to be grounded. If you request to be grounded, you’re obviously not mad because no one in their right minds would want to be flying.

This gives the generals free reign to keep upping the number of missions, going well beyond anyone’s levels of tolerance, and, ultimately, sanity. The fissures are there from the outset, from Alan Arkin’s cynical Bombadier, Yossarian, to Jon Voight’s entrepreneurial mess officer and Bob Balaban’s serial plane crasher. Major Danby reads out mission briefings like it’s a weather forecast, and the doctor comes to terms with his own mortality as he’s wiped from the records after being reported killed. It’s every man for himself and no one has a clue what the hell’s going on. The bureaucratical fatcats, led by Martin Balsam and Orson Welles, respond to the crises by promoting people because of their name (Captain Major henceforth known as Major Major), and dispensing medals to cover up a monumental cock-up over Italy.

Amongst all this insanity, there’s a recurring dream-like sequence of the Bombardier going to the aid of a rear plane-gunner who’s so new he doesn’t even know his name. It’s a rare quiet period amidst the chaos, the scene gradually extending each time we see it, until the final, horrific, revelation. By this time, it’s all gone to pot. The small group of friends has been fractured beyond repair, with the one ray of hope lying with the crazy Balaban, whose propensity at ditching his plane in the ocean hides a cunning and thoroughly rational plan.

I love the Theatre of the Absurd and I reckon Catch-22 is the closest you’ll get to it in film terms. The characters are cogs in the machine, representations and exaggerations of human traits, rather than rounded characters in their own right. Jon Voight’s Milo is the epitome of the cash-grabbing capitalist whose economic structure takes precedence over the lives of the men he’s supposed to be supporting. It’s a world view that’s as bleak as 1984but retains a small spark  of individuality and hope as Yossarian strikes out for freedom. It’s cleverly written, very funny, and forty years on, deserves to be appreciated as a film in its own right.

Incidentally, does anyone else get confused between Martin Balsam and Ernest Borgnine? No? Just me then.

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Film Stuff

Day 13: Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001)

I could have cheated today and gone for The 13th Warrior or Thirteen Days, both of which I’ve seen before and could quite happily natter away about their respective merits (unappreciated in the case of the former).

But, despite being a few days out of sync, I was determined to stick to the purpose of the challenge – to discover films that had passed me by for whatever reason. Thirteen Conversations was a case in point. Although it was made in 2001, I’m sure it wasn’t released in the UK for at least another few years. I remember thinking about going to see it when I was already in Birmingham and it doesn’t feel that long ago (although, this October, I will have lived in Birmingham for 10 years – argh!).

It looked like another one of those quirky ensemble pieces with multiple narratives and intersecting lives. Matthew McConaughey is a hotshot lawyer from the DA’s office, who is so smug in his sanctimonious sense of righteousness that you just know he’s going to hit the buffers sooner or later. Alan Arkin is a cynical insurance manager who is so irritated by the cheeriness of one of his underlings that he fires him just for the hell of it. John Tuturro (what’s happened to him?) is a university lecturer suffering from the aftermath of an armed robbery, simultaneously stoking an extra-marital affair and ignoring the quiet appeals of a delicate student. Clea DuVall is a cleaner with a crush on her employer, whose response is not quite the Love Actually-style fantasy she’s clearly hoping for.

If I’m honest, I was slightly bored by the film. The pace is very slow and everyone takes themselves far too seriously. Characters’ foibles are flagged up to such an extent that you can see the forced change of heart coming a mile off. The minute McConaughey’s lawyer gets into the driving seat after a few celebratory drinks, it’s obvious that his sense of moral superiority is about to be shattered. Alan Arkin is always watchable, but his callousness in firing his colleague undermines any sympathy you have with his situation. The fact that he tries to rectify his mistake throughout the rest of the film makes for an interesting journey, but one which evokes understanding rather than affection.

The over-riding theme of guilt holds this film together, with the characters having to deal with the consequences of their actions. The most powerful image is that of the lawyer deliberately re-opening the cut on his head (the injury he sustained during a hit-and-run accident), as a physical reminder of his silent guilt. This is an effective way of  externalizing his feelings and to punish himself for his crime.

There are definitely things to admire here, but I felt the film was designed to put forward a theoretical argument, rather than to entertain an audience. The tone didn’t vary much and the characters were never particularly animated. They were there for a purpose – to illustrate the thematic case and not to exist as people in their own right. The use of title cards between each section makes it seem like an episode of Frasier, with little of the irony, and none of the humour.