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There was, of course, a catch.

"Catch-22?" inquired Yossarian.

"Of course," Captain Korn answered pleasantly....

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

"Catch-22" (the phrase) always reminds me of a discussion I had with John, my then-roommate, and with another friend of mine. We were discussing—well, I don't remember exactly what we were discussing, but this friend says something about the "contemporary lexicon," and right then John says "Okay, you can leave."

"What?" says my friend.

"Leave. Just go."


"Nobody uses that word in my apartment."

And the funny thing about John was, although he should have been kidding, he wasn't. That's just the sort of thing he'd have said to me if I started on with words like "postmodern" or "paradigm" or any other pretentious bullshit. Okay, "lexicon" is special, because it has the "x" that makes you sort of half-lisp when you're saying it, so you end up sounding like Anthony Michael Hall during his John Hughes days. And by-God if you were gonna discuss it, you'd better not be on John's turf.

Which brings us back to Catch-22, because you can't read a review of either the novel or the film without the subject coming up. And to be fair, Joe Heller is one of the few writers in the latter half of the Twentieth Century to coin such a pervasive phrase (I guess William Gibson ("cyberspace") comes to mind).

Well, this introduction is getting a little long, but this is pretty heavy material, so I hope you'll forgive me. What follows is (1) a definition of "Catch-22," (2) a review of the novel, and (3) a review of the Mike Nichols film adaptation.

1. Definition

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for ones own 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.

Joseph Heller

And, as Catch-22's protagonist says, "That's some catch, that Catch-22." Practically speaking, a "catch-22" is a paradoxical clause of some sort, often referred to as "Damned if you do; damned if you don't." Which, in my opinion, sums it up nicely.

2. The Novel

Catch-22 (1961)

Catch-22 is not really a book, It does not even seem to have been written. Instead, it gives the impression that it was shouted onto paper.

The New Yorker

To summarize the plot of Catch-22: Yossarian is in a hospital, but before he is in the hospital he is outside the hospital where people are being killed, and there's nothing funny about it. And if that isn't funny, a lot of things aren't even funnier: like the way Snowden is cold and Snowden is of course dying, and Snowden is cold and Yossarian is patching up Snowden's leg and Snowden is of course dying, and Snowden is cold and Yossarian is patching up Snowden's leg and Snowden shows Yossarian his secret which falls out all over his flack jacket and Snowden is of course dying; like the way M + M enterprises, which is really just Milo Minderbinder's initials with a "+" added to sound official, begins to contract work with the Germans and the Americans because he's in favor of free enterprise and organizes bombings and organizes the preparations of those to be bombed, so the bombing is really just a foregone conclusion and need not be actually carried out, and then bombs his own camp and is of course congratulated for his brilliance; like Nately's whore whom Nately falls in love with and who will sleep with other men but never Nately; like the fact that the Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions and the only way to get him to stop is to pretend to like him; like the CID man who sneaks into the hospital to find Washington Irving or Irving Washington and ends up getting sick amongst the fakers; like Doc Daneeka watching himself die in a ball of fire and debris. Of course this plot outline is far too linear, and as such had to be staggered and scattered around in a mess of flash-forwards and flashbacks.

Heller's novel is brilliant, funny, tragic, sometimes profound, and difficult to read. Read it anyway. Funnier than M*A*S*H on even its best day, Catch-22 is a World War II novel that is really a criticism of Cold War, Red Scare type practices, masquerading as a comic mess of word-play. It begins hilarious, then spirals between grotesque, brutal scenes and dark comedy (emphasis on the comedy). I was three-quarters finished with this novel before I realized it was serious, and that it was maybe the best novel I'd ever read, and that it was probably going to grow more serious and better until the end. Which, of course, it did.

The story is simple: Captain John Yossarian (Yo-yo to his friends) is a bombadier who believes people are trying to kill him because they shoot at him every time he tries to bomb them. He's told "they're shooting at everyone." "What difference does that make?" he says. And since Doc Daneeka won't ground him, Yossarian must take matters into his own hands (cue dramatic music).... Well, that's sort of the story—that's as simple as I can make it. And of course the novel is just about as complex as Heller can make it. Read it. Twice. Then maybe you'll follow what I'm getting at.

3. The Film

Catch-221 (1970)  War Comedy
      Director:                  Mike Nichols
      Writer:                    Buck Henry
      Producer:                  Martin Ransohoff
      Captain John Yossarian     Alan Arkin
      Colonel Cathcart           Martin Balsam
      Major Danby                Richard Benjamin
      Captain Nately             Art Garfunkel
      Captain 'Doc' Daneeka      Jack Gilford
      Lt. Colonel Korn           Buck Henry
      Major Major Major Major    Bob Newhart
      Chaplain Tappman           Anthony Perkins
      Nurse Duckett              Paula Prentiss
      1st Lt. Dobbs              Martin Sheen
      1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder  Jon Voight
      Brig. General Dreedle      Orson Welles
      Captain Orr                Bob Balaban
      Dreedle's WAC              Susan Benton
      1st. Sergeant Towser       Norman Fell

Let's start with the one-sentence critique: Read the book first. The film works mostly as a reference to the novel, with undeveloped characters and inexplicable scenes, for those without the prior knowledge that the novel provides. In fact, most of the minor characters in this film seem to be caricatures of their textual counterparts, as the insanity of the system, in the film, must be expressed through the characters rather than through a narrator interpreting the characters.

I don't know, maybe I'm wrong—the first time I saw Catch-22 was just after I read the novel, so I haven't seen it without that foreknowledge—but a couple friends who watched it with me complained, after, that it didn't really make any sense. The film follows, basically, the plot-line of the novel—which is to say a vague and confusing chronology. The punch of Catch-22 relies on returning, repeatedly, to the scene of the death of Snowden, with flashbacks and flash-forwards to air battles and (various) hospital scenes and bar scenes and r&r trips—and the whole thing works, just barely, if you already have a good understanding of where everything should fit.

And I'm not making any value-judgments on this matter, because, well, maybe it isn't such a bad thing to require a little background to understand a film. As an idea, I suppose that could work. But in preserving the spirit of the novel, the film is uneven. Catch-22 is black humor, based on the juxtaposition of hilarity and brutality, the highs and lows, and although the film captures the lows quite well, showing the paranoid menace and alienation Yossarian feels toward the end of the film, the highs of absurd comedy that pulled the novel through its opening half seem a bit empty.

I'm not trying to imply that I didn't enjoy Catch-22—I certainly did—but just to say that it's a good, rather than great, film. The performances of a number of characters are excellent (Arkin, as Yossarian, for example), and the film was visually quite interesting; the problem was, like many films based on unconventional novels, the material just was not quite fit for the transformation to the screen.

1 Blatantly stolen from http://us.imdb.com/Title?0065528

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