Mistaking the genre of Catch 22

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George Clooney and his actor friends have made an actorly mistake in adapting Catch 22 for a TV series. They thought it was about characters, but it isn’t. They thought they would create some splendid parts for themselves. But there are no “characters” in Catch 22, in an actorly sense. There are what we call “larger than life” characters, each one with an extreme characteristic, which you might think was like a Moliere comic extreme – the Miser, the Snob, Jealousy. But it is not a human characteristic that a Heller character has; it’s a mechanical one.

Each Heller figure is a function of the insane bureaucratic mechanisms of warfare. Each one is an extreme of something institutional: Parades (Sheisskopf), Hierarchical Ambition (Cathcart), Neatness Obsession (Bomb patterns), Hiding in a Non-job (Major Major), Institutional Opportunism (Milo Minderbinder). These are the cogs, rods, joints and dials of a bureaucratic machine. They do not have “personal feelings” or “back story” or “motivation”. The only motivation they have is the inexorable crazy logic of a machine blithely churning out death with no regard for the humans at all. Acting them as fully rounded human beings is absurd and ruins the whole enterprise.

You should not cast serious actors. You need Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Eric Sykes, the Goons, the Carry-On Crew, Sacha Baron Cohen, the Keystone Cops. It is a farce, and needs to be a fast ratatatat of quick-fire absurdities as the careless logic of bureaucracy crushes one human need after another with irresistible paradoxes. You need a cardboard stage set with revolving doors, collapsing walls and exploding beds. The music should be played on a kazoo and a penny whistle. To see actors frowning, emoting away, and being wistfully contemplative, mistakes the genre. It is horrible,  slowing the whole thing down into a turgid mess. The Clooney dramatisation is a mistake.

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