Thursday, 3 March 2011

Leap | Fiction | Mega Catch-22 vs. Giant Office Space. Requiem.

My favourite leap in literature? Kid Sampson leaps out of the cool Mediterranean waters surrounding Pianosa onto the edge of a floating jetty, and is immediately turned into a melange of bodily parts by the propeller of McWatt, who is indulging in his favourite pastime of 'buzzing' swimmers in the water. Kid Sampson's severed legs plop down into the water. McWatt, thinking fast, unwilling to come down and face the music, turns his plane about and smashes it into the side of a mountain, with a cry of, "Oh, well, what the hell".

It's possibly my favourite leap because it doesn't quite work as well as a setpiece as it could - because it's as jarring and in its own way, completely gratuituous as the other famous scene where Snowden literally spills its guts, but it has a great deal more ambition. How can McWatt possibly be flying that low? Even a precocious ten-year-old child in The Phantom Menace is unlikely to accidentally kill someone through such absurd recklessness. Neither scene adds a lot to the philosophy of the book - Snowden's death, irritatingly, is treated as a moment of revelation, despite being, in its own way, pretty trite (turns out man is just flesh and blood, after all).

It did occur to me that actually, the least convincing parts of Catch-22 to today's audience, which has heard every passionate, naive-unt-blunt atheistic argument there is, are the sections that attempt to bring in an anti-religious element to a story which is about the horrors of a very human system. I still well up a little at the scene when Yossarian, for typically nonsensical reasons, imitates a dying soldier whose elderly father asks him to tell God, when he gets to heaven, that folk should die when they're old, not young, "and I don't think he knows that ain't right, because he's supposed to be good and it's been happening for a long time now." But it's still beating a straw-man to death with hokily over-literal thinking, as is the very funny fantasy where Yossarian plots to shuffle close enough through the crowds of souls on Judgement Day to leap forward, grab God ("that little yokel") by the throat and...and we never find out.

It also occurred to me (things just do, I guess) how unnecessary that Catch-22 movie adaptation that seems to get brought up every so often is.

Firstly because the largely flat Alan Arkin version pointed out how absurd it is to even attempt to get a handle on the novel's deliciously circuituous, easily distracted, almost Tristram Shandy-esque flow, and how difficult it'd be to find a comic actor who could capture Yossarian. Arkin played him largely as a sane man in a crazy world, which simply isn't true. A film has to understand that Catch is Marx Brothers just as much as it's Beckett - a world in which every character (and the author) is Groucho, often repeating one another ("T.S. Eliot"), letting their own wordplay lead them into bizarre leaps of logic and carry them away in completely different directions. Yossarian is a crazy man set against a crazy world - and the sane characters, the 'straight men', the Zeppos, are almost uniformly portrayed as trembling weaklings (Major Major, the Chaplain, Clevinger) whose impotence is to be mocked, not mourned.

Secondly because readers who feel that Catch-22 is about the horrors and absurdities of war have already recreated it for the latter-day military (Buffalo Soldiers, Jarhead, that thing with the bloke from American Pie).

Thirdly because they're wrong, and because the film that's come closest to capturing the spirit of Catch-22 is Mike Judge's Office Space, which understands that the closest parallel to Heller's hell is the modern work environment, a thought which also also occurred to me when I noted the similarity between the logic of the catch itself and the difficulty Rachel Aniston's character Joanna, a waitress at a TGI Friday's-style restaurant, has with her manager, who insists that she only has to wear the minimum 18 pieces of 'flair' (meaninglessly jolly buttons)...but that if she wants to keep her job, she'd better wear 37. The memos, the bloated and contradictory orders, the endless and unnecessary 'colonels' and 'managers' filling the upper levels...and meanwhile, Peter Gibbons, the hero, while he starts out as a typical frustrated 'relatable' hero, does spend the majority of the film's length as a near-Yossarian, committing acts of absent-minded, near-Zen-like rebellion and getting away with it - while the scene in which powerless, hopeless whiner Milton Waddams is relocated from cubicle to cubicle, before finally being dumped to rot in the darkness of the basement, is far closer to Catch-22 than Kafka in its sympathies (or lack of sympathies) towards the victims of the system.

We might even call it post-Kafka, in that the master's various Ks are treated as victims of a subjective nightmare - while the faceless administrators and bureaucrats and so on may appear to ignore the hero, the system itself is conspiring against him. In Heller and Judge's world, the system is an objective reality, those who allow themselves to be pushed around by it are suckers, and the heroes, like Yossarian and Peter, are those with enough nous to simply ignore as much of it as possible, understanding perfectly well that the system is large and disorganised enough for their little rebellion to go unnoticed and thus avoid retribution. It can never go from being a rebellion to a revolution, however - hence both stories end with quite a silly 'escape' for their heroes - Yossarian's, at least, is self-consciously absurd and almost certainly doomed in his attempt to mimic Orr and row to Sweden, but Peter's happiness in a new career as a construction worker just doesn't stand up to any analysis.

The problem with this worldview is that it buys into the capitalist perspective while attempting to rail against it. Yossarian, for all Catch-22's jabs at material individualism in the form of the flexible morals and business acumen of Milo Minderbinder, is exactly such an individualist. Office Space commits the far worse crime (which is why I'd argue - sorry, Mike Judge fans - that it can never be a bona fide classic) of, in true US cinematic fashion, never coming to terms with the problems of survival in a world dominated by currency. How is the earthy, unpretentious builder who lives next door to Peter and who seems be able to get up whenever he wants and do whatever the hell he wants, able to survive quite reasonably off his salary with exactly the same quality of life as his white-collar neighbour? Isn't it incredibly naive to treat construction labour in the 90s as some sort of hearty, satisfying returning-to-the-earth honest work that couldn't possibly be under threat by the advent of advanced machinery? It's an odd twist on Biff's dilemma from Death of a Salesman - whereas Biff was quite willing to opt out of every aspect of the American Dream, including material comforts, in order to work with horses in the countryside, Office Space wants it both ways; worse, it cannot imagine a peace that doesn't involve the benefits of a, uh, advanced capitalist society - see the ending in which Milton Waddams ceases to be a sucker, sets fire to the company building, and elopes to a sunny beach with stolen funds to live out the rest of his days in luxury. The thought is, perhaps, that the vast majority of us have now come too far to survive without said society - that (pace, you noble hippies living in a tent and surviving off grubworms) to be disconnected will soon mean to be dead.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

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