Saturday, May 12, 2012

Catch 22: Comedy Films, Seriously

The most frequent Best Picture nominee and winner category is the drama genre.[i] “When the Academy announced" in 2010 "that it was expanding the roster of Best Picture nominees from five to 10, to diversify the list beyond a handful of critically-approved…films, it was expected that there would be room for…even a comedy!"[ii] This was not to be the case. While the messages in film dramas are generally taken seriously, comedies are, more often than not, deemed a genre of American cinema that is produced solely for laughs. While it is true that some film comedies contain no serious message, there are a great many film “comedies [that] not only provide entertainment or suggest utopian solutions to social problems, they also explore the underlying tensions and contradictions that exist within … modern society.”[iii] Even though, American comedies “provide important insights into the increasingly complex web of social relationships by which we define our lives,”[iv] the public is often blindsided by the number of laughs we expect to be provided, and how entertained we are by film comedies. The film Catch 22, released in 1970, directed by Mike Nichols, is one among other film comedies that has a most prophetic message for the current decade and our future as a society to come. The film's screenplay was written by Buck Henry and based on a story by the same name that was written by novelist Joseph Heller. Although classified as an anti-war piece, sometimes drama, often black comedy, the insight that this piece contains is more about the struggle of humanity to circumvent our own destruction from the commoditized, chaotic culture we’ve created. I agree with critic, Rob Gonsalves, who writes in his review in efilm that “The novel wasn't so much Heller’s broadside against war or even the military as his piss-take at bureaucracy and corporate culture.” and as I see it the real problem is that wars are “being fought to move product and make stockholders happy.”[v]
The film’s protagonist Captain John Joseph Yossarian is played by consummate actor, Alan Akin.  Yossarian  is part of a bomber unit in Italy during WWII. He does not want to fly any more missions. Colonel Catcher, played by Martin Balsam, is the head of the unit and he keeps raising the amount of missions the men have to fly before being rotated out and sent home. Meanwhile, 1st Lt. Milo Minder binder, played by Jon Vogt, gets relieved of his flying duties to form a syndicate and make money for the unit. First, Lt. Minder binder purchases fresh eggs for the unit. It seems like he’s looking out for the troops to have them eating well. What he's really doing is wheeling and dealing in all types of commodities, including artwork, hidden by the Nazi’s. Finally, Minder binder has invested everything, including sale of the all of the unit’s parachutes which are made of silk, to purchase cotton. He loses all of the syndicate’s assets when the market becomes saturated with cotton. Sound familiar?  Yossarian is in his plane and it’s been hit. He’s scrambling (pun intended) to find his parachute and he finds inside his chute bag a card for M&M Enterprises. The critical life-saving parachutes have been sold to purchase a completely irrelevant material by Colonel Cathcart’s imbecilic management of the unit and Minderbinder’s wheeling and dealing. Enron anybody? How about our housing crisis? The banks bailed out by the government and people losing their homes. What about the state of the automobile industry?  Two other areas of serious concern in our commoditized society which we might say that this  film addresses are 1) How public space is being bought by large corporate entities and 2) The supreme court’s decision that Corporations have the right of an individual for free speech and therefore reversed the maximum political contributions corporations are allowed to make.

These issues are deserving of more extensive coverage elsewhere. What is important here is that the genre of comedy film, not only points to these issues, but it does it in a way that no other format could. The genre has an appeal to the mass market because of its comedic approach – it takes on serious issues and reveals critical awareness to a large number of people.  While the drama genre of American film is always considered focuses serious, comedy films often not only spotlight serious issues, but they provoke our ability to think of solutions. However, there’s a “catch.” And we need to remember that when we watch film comedy like, Catch 22. Just as Yossarian might represent the individual, or you or me: the citizens of these great United States, while the syndicate created by Minderbinder is analogous to the corporation, and Colonel Cathcart to the Chairman or CFO, etc. We [the citizens] need to remember not to just sit by and watch the chaos. We can not only be entertained by comedy film, but we can be enlightened and take action. The conversation in the film that Capt. Yossarian has with Dr. ‘Doc’ Daneeka in order to get discharged from his flying duties, describes the catch:
Yossarian: Alright, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying, but if I ask to be grounded that means I’m not crazy anymore and I have to keep flying.
Doc:          You got it, that’s Catch 22.

We can’t just get caught up in the craziness of the world. We can’t just sit by – like in the film, when the nurses so involved in their conversation while attending to a soldier covered in a cast from head to toe, take the bottle of urine and replace it with the bottle of IV. Yossarian screams, we as citizens need to protest. We have to persist in our intellectual and emotional development, and in watching American film comedy, not forget the serious messages that are communicated.

[i] Best Pictures - Genre Biases,
[ii] Morgan, David S. Oscars: Comedy Shunned Again, Despite Academy's Expanded Best Picture Field, Comedies Continue to Suffer a la Rodney Dangerfield,, February 2, 2010,
[iii] Beach, Christopher. Class, Language, and American Film Comedy.  2002 Cambridge University Press, UK.
[iv] Beach, Christopher. Class, Language, and American Film Comedy.  2002 Cambridge University Press, UK.
[v] Gonsalves, Rob. Catch 22 review.

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