February 24, 2017 by Lucian Mogosanu

Yes, indeed, you can see him, when he isn't there.
That is, he'll see you, all right, but only in his office, and only when he's not there.
The other times, when he's in... he's not there to be seen.
Except when he's out.

The film1 is an excellent piece, seemingly on war, but really gravitating around three major themes and the interplay between them, namely: death, travesty and power.

The story begins with Captain John Yossarian's glance in the mirror, at his own death2, which is a full circle starting with the death of him who may have been his only friend. The events set in motion by the story illustrate the same Yossarian's struggle -- which may very well be your struggle or mine -- to escape this circle, this tar pit of its own. And what better setting for representing death other than war; empires rise and fall, but war, murderously laughing in the face of everything, never changes3.

Along with death, our main character is accompanied in his journey by travesty, a travesty exposed by the writers of this particular piece under the name of Catch-22; no different, however, from doublethink, post-truth, or whatever flavour's in fashion this season. The travesty in cause is run by a bunch of bureaucrats who like to call themselves General, Colonel, Major and whatnot, but who are in fact naught but derps derping around in a puddle of crass incompetence. It doesn't matter one bit that the USAF has invested power in them, as power without substance corrupts not in evil ways, as Tolkien's fantasy would have one believe, but in mind-bogglingly stupid ways4.

And speaking of power. The wielder of power in this movie is not the USAF nor the military daddy, but the Lieutenant Jew Milo Minderbender, who for his own profit, and as his name suggests, feeds the entire travesty. But make no mistake, the man is the only one who doesn't actually fall in the puddle, but who keeps everyone else there in order to make a buck. And if you pay attention, he's honest about it, he gives "the facts"; though "the facts" are not an object used to build a narrative, but the very product of the narrative itself5. Surely, you may think he's evil, and maybe he is, but you don't see anyone else trying to make the best of it.

Catch-22 has aged well. There are beefy portions of comedy scattered throughout the movie, in every scene, in every event which otherwise gives one the chills -- a so-called dark comedy which is quite obviously the literary device through which the narrator permeates, that is, conveys all the bits of madness beyond the screen and to the viewer. I for one was pleasantly impressed by this technique, despite the fact that it dates back to a couple of millenia before ol' Caragiale.

There's not much left to add. We conclude with:

Old man: You all crazy!
Boy: Why are we crazy?
Old man: Because you don't know how to stay alive. And that's the secret of life.
Boy: But we have a war to win.
Old Man: But America will lose the war; Italy will win it.
Boy: America's the strongest nation on earth. The American fighting man is the best trained, the best equipped, the best fed...
Old man: Exactly. Italy, on the other hand, is one of the weakest nations on earth and the Italian fighting man is hardly equipped at all. That's why my country is doing so well while yours is doing so poorly.
Boy: That's silly! First Italy was occupied by Germans and now by us. You call that doing well?
Old man: Of course I do. The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years, you'll be gone, and we'll still be here. You see, Italy is a very poor, weak country, yet that is what makes us so strong. Strong enough to survive this war and still be in existence... long after your country has been destroyed.
Boy: What are you talking about? America's not going to be destroyed.
Old man: Never?
Boy: Well...
Old man: Rome was destroyed. Greece was destroyed. Persia was destroyed. Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you think your country will last? Forever?
Boy: Forever is a long time, I guess.
Old man: Very long.
Whore: Ciao!
Boy: Please, we're talking.
Whore: We go to bed now?
Boy: No. Would you go put some clothes on? You're practically naked. (To old man:) I wish she wouldn't walk around like that.
Old man: It is her business to walk around like that.
Boy: But it's not nice.
Old man: Of course it's nice!... She's nice to look at.
Boy: This life is not nice. I don't want her to do this.
Girl: When we go to America, Nately?
Another girl: When we go to America, Nately?
Old man: You will take her to America? Away from a healthy, active life? Away from good business opportunities? Away from her friends?
Boy: Don't you have any principles?
Old man: Of course not.
Boy: No morality?
Old man: I'm a very moral man. And Italy is a very moral country. That's why we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.
Boy: You talk like a madman.
Old man: But I live like a sane one.
Old man: I was a Fascist when Mussolini was on top. Now that he has been deposed, I am anti-Fascist. (Sips wine.) When the Germans were here, I was fanatically pro-German. Now I'm fanatically pro-America! (Gestures.) You'll find no more loyal partisan in all of Italy than myself.
Boy: You're a shameful opportunist! What you don't understand is that it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
Old man: You have it backwards. It's better to live on your feet than to die on your knees. I know.
Boy: How do you know?
Old man: Because I am 107 years old. How old are you?
Boy: I'll be 20 in January.
Old man: If you live.

  1. 1970, directed by Mike Nichols, after the book bearing the same name written by Joseph Heller. Starring Alan Arkin, Art Garfunkel, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles and a bunch of other guys. 

  2. Giving in to the enemy's logic is equivalent to death. Yes, the body may carry on, it may last a decade, two or five, but then... what? Ponder on that for a moment. 

  3. In a manner similar maybe to that other well-known piece about war and its paradoxes, this time with Martin Sheen in a major role. I am talking of course about Apocalypse Now. 

  4. Did you ever wonder why your politicians fail you? and not in any exceptional way, but consistently and without any apparent end.

    Think about it for a moment: you live in times in which democracy is considered valuable. Thus politicians' greatest incentive is to claim that they do things "for the people" -- not to actually do that, mind you, but only to claim it. Some of the more stupid ones will actually give it a shot, despite the numerous examples of failure given to us by history. And despite the failure, they will continue claiming the opposite, leading to a spiral of marketing and PR and whatnot, leading us to MAGA and whatnot. Popescu's got details in his writings.

    But this is an aspect masterfully illustrated by the movie -- and this in the beginning of the '70s, when America was still great! -- so read on. 

  5. Which is, if you think about it, one of the great marks of power. Science is by its very definition falsifiable, and science put aside, politics becomes the art of making people believe (in) the leader, and not just by mere persuasion. Conversely, perverting science in order to support a narrative is inherently evil; but I digress. 

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One Response to “Catch-22”

  1. [...] of the twentieth century. It was also the last piece directed by Mike Nichols, the same guy who did Catch-22. So it should come as no surprise to the reader -- especially judging by the title -- that the [...]

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