Tag Archives: Antiwar

CHANNEL 366: “CATCH-22” (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras,

FEATURING: , Kyle Chandler, Daniel David Stewart, Grant Heslov, George Clooney

PLOT: In the Italian theater of World War II, terrified American bombardier Yossarian seeks any way he can find out of the Air Force, but his commander continues to find an excuse to raise the number of required missions every time he gets close to being discharged.

Still from Catch-22 (2019 TV miniseries)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you adapt Joseph Heller’s absurd novel literally, you might make the List, but you’ll never get George Clooney to sign on to the project. If you make it literal and not absurd, you can get it on Hulu for six commerical-funded episodes, but it will never make our List. It’s a Catch-366!

COMMENTS: A recommendation on an off-topic sports forum described Hulu’s 2019 version of “Catch-22” as “like M*A*S*H*, but darker.” That nails it for anyone not familiar with the original source material. The M*A*S*H* book/movie/TV series franchise, while witty, was an ersatz, popularized Catch-22, where the existential absurdity of war as a grand metaphor was pre-digetsed into a parade of wisecracks and hijinks, counterculture pacifist slogans, and simplified bureaucratic satire for the anti-Vietnam crowd. Funny, still, but no longer profoundly so.

It would be tempting to assume that every reader is intimately familiar with both Joseph Heller’s novel and (canonically weird!) 1970 movie adaptation, and spill a lot of digital ink in listing and critiquing each plot detour the new adaptation takes. But that would be of little interest to the casual reader. Nevertheless, even for those unfamiliar with the source material, discussion of the changes the writers made will give insight into their mindset and the tone they were going for—and give a sense of what may be missing that made the original so revolutionary. In the extra features (available to watch on Hulu alongside the episodes), the writers are forthcoming in explaining that they wanted to simplify the story to aid viewers’ comprehension. The most crucial change is that they take Heller’s disorienting, jumping-about-in-time narrative and rewrite it so it occurs chronologically, “so that the characters can have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end,” to bypass Heller’s “dense, kaleidoscopic chaos.” They also sanitize Heller’s relentless, repetitive, circular wordplay, scripting most exchanges as realistic, natural-sounding dialogue. In other words, they felt duty-bound to conventionalize everything.

These decisions makes the tale easier to follow, sure, but at what cost? Heller’s “chaos” was a deliberate thematic choice, reflecting his attitude to both his protagonist and the world, and toying with it inevitably changes the story. Sometimes it does so in minor ways: it seems to me that Major Major is a funnier character before his backstory is revealed (the movie didn’t even bother to go into  Major’s personal history, and the character worked just fine). A poignant reveal about the “dead man” in Yossarian’s tent is destroyed by telling the tale front-to-back. On a more serious note, a rape that was only implied in the novel and movie becomes an unnecessarily graphic and unpleasant scene in episode 5, a giant misstep in tone; then, the outrageous aftermath of the atrocity (one of the great ironic moments of the novel and film) is played so realistically that it barely registers on the black comedy scale. (The victim is also different, which is the first indicator that Heller’s ending has been scrapped.) The rejiggering of the plot does allow for a greatly expanded (and funny) role for George Clooney as Scheisskopf, the boys’ original parade-obsessed flight instructor, who is now more bully than fool, and as vindictive as incompetent. The book’s finale is completely changed; to be fair, the ending they came up with makes for a great image that comes across better onscreen than it would have on the page. It’s also more in the spirit of Heller’s hilarious nihilism than much else in the film.

It would have been hard for this series to match the movie’s classic cast: , , Bob Newhart, , Martin Balsam, Charles Grodin. Clooney supplies the lone star power here, with veteran character actors filling out the officer brigade, while fresh faces do well as the hapless cannon fodder. As Yossarian, Christopher Abbott lacks the befuddled outrage of Alan Arkin, but he grows on you. Arkin’s Yossarian was a principled coward, a holy fool who made self-preservation his preeminent moral value. Abbott’s yellow streak is both darker and more pragmatic; the characterization is more believable, but less meaningful.

The series looks good, with a color palette that might be described as “Mediterranean sepia.” The soundtrack is nostalgic contemporary swing that often has an ironic tinge.

Paradoxically, a realist take on an unreal novel is, in its way, brave and unexpected. While those of us who are fans of Heller’s masterpiece may struggle to hold back our resentment, newcomers for whom this is their first exposure to the book (and/or movie) will dig it just fine, and will have better things to look forward to from Catch-22 in the future.

“Catch-22” can be viewed free by Hulu subscribers, or downloaded digitally from Amazon and other streaming outlets.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like Heller’s protagonist John Yossarian when faced with the insanity of war, [the creators] respond to the crazy ambition of Heller’s novel by choosing not to engage… Adapting a classic treatment of the irrationality of the military mind, they work assiduously to ensure that everything makes sense.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

360. COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i smotri

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. “–Revelation 6:7-8

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius

PLOT: Florya, a boy of about 14, digs in a field with a playmate, hoping to find a buried rifle so he can join the Belorussian partisans fighting against occupying Nazis. He finds one, and is soon roughly whisked away by soldiers to the forest campground, leaving his sobbing mother behind. When the troops go on patrol he is left alone to guard the camp, but after the Luftwaffe bomb the area he and a female companion return to Florya’s village, where he finds the war has devastated everything his once knew.

Still from Come and See (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a memoir of a teenage Belarussian partisan, Come and See was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis.
  • Director Elem Klimov, still a relatively young man at 52 when he completed Come and See, chose to retire from filmmaking after its release, saying that he could not top this achievement.
  • Come and See is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and tied for 30th (among directors) and 154th (among critics) in “Sight and Sound”‘s 2012 Greatest Movie poll, among other accolades and honors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It could be the closeup of Aleksey Kravechenko’s prematurely aged face at the end. Or the S.S. skull-on-a-stick the refugees turn into an effigy of Hitler. For me, however, the most surprising and unforgettable image was the nightmare of Florya and Glasha sloshing through a muddy bog in desperation, fleeing from a horror they will never be able to outrun.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forest Charleston; cow in a firefight; kill baby Hitler?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Come and See’s flirtations with surrealism nudge it into the “weird” category, and then its sheer grueling intensity carries it to “must see” status. That recommendation should perhaps come with a warning that, despite containing nothing particularly graphic, this movie’s sheer aura of evil is likely to disturb you on a deep level. This is not a shock-for-shock’s-sake experience, however, but an honest, unflinching dip into the subconscious of an adolescent boy thrust into a horrific situation initially beyond his comprehension—one which he tragically comes to understand all too well.


DVD trailer for Come and See

COMMENTS: Come and See is war movie as horror movie. It is notable for its immersive intensity. It unrelentingly assaults your sensibilities, as sadistically eager to strip away your innocence as it is to Continue reading 360. COME AND SEE (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Come and See has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

DUCK SOUP (1933)

“Movies gave them a mass audience, and they were the instrument that translated what was once essentially a Jewish style of humor into the dominant note of American comedy. Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential.”–Roger Ebert on the Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers were, understandably, the darlings of the surrealists; and that should be a red flag to contemporary audience members belonging to the religious cult of Hyperrealism.

I say that up front because I have watched this film in the company of such alien types as the Hyperrealists. Their melodramatic, aggressive reactions were the same as I saw in a showing of the films of  Busby Berkeley (be forewarned: a series on Berkeley is coming). Naturally, I saw it as my aesthetic duty to cut those sophistic assailants down to size.

The Marx Brothers, perhaps, are the quintessential comedy team with an edge. exhibits a comparable level of surrealism, but as a predominantly solo act, he’s a mono whisper compared to the quadrophonic Brothers. 1930s audiences showed themselves to be a somewhat more imaginative lot (not by much) than us in that they not only accepted the Brothers level of unhinged zaniness, but they even made stars out of them.

Still from Duck Soup (1933)Note that “but not by much,” because Duck Soup (1933) was the Marx Brothers most revolutionary film, a surrealist-politico masterpiece, and it totally bombed at the box office. This resulted in the Brothers being released from their Paramount contract.  MGM and Irving Thalberg were quick to snap them up, but Thalberg, a self-confessed fan, knew he had to polish their act in order to increase their accessibility.

The MGM films that followed Soup Continue reading DUCK SOUP (1933)

CAPSULE: CATERPILLAR (2010)

AKA Kyatapirâ

DIRECTED BY: Kôji Wakamatsu

FEATURING: Shinobu Terajima, Keigo Kasuya

PLOT: Lieutenant Kurokawa loses all four limbs and is rendered deaf, dumb and disfigured during the Japanese invasion of China on the eve of World War II; when the Emperor declares him a “Living War God,” his wife Shigeko is ordered to care for the living torso, including fulfilling all her usual wifely duties.

Still from Caterpillar (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its perverse premise and its superficial similarities to the Certified Weird Johnny Got His Gun, Caterpillar isn’t that weird; instead, it’s an intense domestic drama about duty.

COMMENTS: Lieutenant Kurokawa is a monster. Scarred by the war, unable to hear or to speak (with great difficulty, he can sometimes painfully squeeze out a single syllable), he’s essentially a torso, an esophagus and a fully-functional phallus. Flashbacks reveal that the caterpillar, now revered as a god, was actually a moral monster long before his physique was carved up to match. The duty to care for the god-monster falls upon long-suffering partner Shigeko, who must feed him, wipe him, and cater to his suddenly insatiable sexual needs.  For the wife, the mangled Lieutenant combines the worst aspects of an infant and a spouse—completely dependent, demanding, and incoherent, but with no compensatory cuteness or tenderness. She lives alone with him in a one-room house of horrors. Yet, perversely, this disaster delivers an unexpected upside for the poor farm wife. She gains social standing in the village as the caretaker for a god. She is sure to wheel him out in his cart daily to shore up the morale of the rapidly depopulating village as all available able-bodied men are shipped to the front to help failing war effort (even as the daily radio broadcasts detail Japan’s magnificent martial victories). On the home front, Shigeko also eventually learns to enjoy the petty power she has to deny the god a little bit of rice or sex, becoming herself a mini-dictator of an empire consisting of one subject on a straw mat. Caterpillar starts slowly but draws you in to the compellingly claustrophobic dynamic between these two unlikely mates yoked together by fate and obligation. Shinobu Terajima’s performance as the wife is brave and sympathetic (she won many awards, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), but Keigo Kasuya’s turn as the caterpillar is even more crucial to the film’s success. His ability to convey mute fury and desperation with just his eyes, stutters and howls humanizes his role as a symbol of national and domestic fascism. The film never becomes truly exploitative, but there is plenty of caterpillar/human sex, in multiple positions, to titillate the curious. The cinematography is mostly cast in a drab browns that are effective at evoking a backwater rural lifestyle but aren’t particularly pleasing to look at. The budget is obviously tiny: for events outside of the hut and the village, the movie mainly relies on archival footage, along with one war crime recreation with distracting CG flames superimposed over the scene. But the inherent horrific drama and Wakamatsu’s insistent indictment of unthinking duty overcome the cheapness, and Caterillar metamorphoses into an anti-authority parable worth paying attention to.

Like many Japanese directors, Kôji Wakamatsu began his career in the trenches making “pink” films before graduating to more serious features. His filmography contains some titles he’d probably prefer we forgot: movies with names like The Embryo Hunts in Secret, Diary Story of a Japanese Rapist, and Violated Angels. In the 1970s Wakamatsu began slipping more politics into his exploitation films, culminating in  United Red Army (2008), an entirely serious drama about the collapse of the Japanese radical movement in the 1970s, and in this film. Caterpillar was adapted from a 1929 short story by Edogawa Rampo that was originally banned as perverse and unpatriotic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a sexually charged two-hander with blunt allegorical implications… Audience interest will be limited to Wakamatsu devotees and the kind of cult-oriented audiences who automatically perk up at the chance to see simulated amputee sex.”–Vadim Rizov, Boxoffice Magazine (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: I MET THE WALRUS (2007)

A brave 14 year old, Jerry Levitan, was able to sneak into John Lennon’s hotel room in Toronto and talk him into a Q&A session. Thirty-eight years later, Jerry worked with Josh Raskin, James Braithwaite, and Alex Kurina to make an animated video to accompany the recording.

“I Met the Walrus” was nominated for the 2008 Animated Short Academy Award, and won the 2009 Emmy for New Approaches.

42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.


DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a Continue reading 42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)