Several times last week I had an almost, not-quite exchange with laizzes-faire “well, this is unacceptable so certainly it will be taken care of blitheness”, variation of a too nonchalant “this too shall pass” which left me disoriented, sapped of strength, as if the words were an invisible red-and-white striped straw that had unexpectedly found vein, tapped, then breezed along. My outrage over the murderous sadism of naked bodies suspended from and dying on Terror War chains, or the routine stripping of stateside prisoners for purposes of police state humiliation and dehumanization distanced with words of a tourist casual aloofness. I was in horror of the routine humiliation of real people with names and lives, easily imagining my flesh and person in their place, when around the corner strolls a mind that touches my own and I find myself in a place where velvet crowd-control ropes direct the traffic through medieval death dungeons, the victims are historical artifacts that make the price of the ticket, the chained a perpetual fact of life, the essential oddity that makes the attraction, but quickly and ultimately a prison cell is small and boring so move along. The lack of interest embraces and seems to want to win me over to its view and carry me with it. I become detached and disoriented. So this then has no meaning? Belongs to a world of shadowy “other” that has no relation to the tourist basking in the sun. They go to find something to eat and I am left in a state of slight, mute shock. Hollowed.
It’s been a long time since I read “Catch 22”. Just thinking of it now I realize that we probably no longer have the novel. A disintegrating paperback I’ve not seen around in a long time, which means it must have fallen apart and turned landfill sometime between then and now. Had the paperback already when I was 18 or 19, but I’d not read it before I went to see the movie, “Catch 22”.
The movie was one of those special college shows. The sound was muffled. About all that I remember is the cinemotography and lighting. It seemed I’d climbed into someone else’s mind and was living their world.
And I remember two scenes from that once and only viewing of the film. The old Italian man. Did he say something about the sun being different in the Mediterranean? I’ve read this so many times elsewhere, witnessed it in photos, I don’t recollect if the old man had said this or I’ve come to attach this knowledge to this scene (though the quality of sun is different everywhere). But I recollect him talking about time, about what lasts and what doesn’t. In the book, he questions what is a country, pointing out the artificial nature of national boundaries. I don’t remember all that he said in the movie, but he shocked the soldier with whom he was speaking, telling him that America would one die, which hadn’t occurred to the GI. I’m going purely on memory here, and the movie is different from the book. He spoke against nationalism and yet something about parts of his reasoning seemed steeped through with nationalism (to me) and I felt off kilter. Perhaps “all is vanity” was the primary theme. The memory isn’t clear, only that I felt a great hostile vacuum expanding as he spoke. There is a way of approaching the vanity of the human which is hostile and a way which is compassionate. The vacuum overwhelmed and I began to drown. At least that is what I remember feeling, the sun on the movie screen weakening the thin and watery images, muffled voices disintegrating, the ragged film stock chopping up words, breaking thoughts. I started to feel physically ill.
The light. Something about the light was too much.
Then the beach scene. The screen was full with Hollywood, familiar faces, but the film was breaking them up too, splintering them, making them into a lifetime of someone else’s real memories piled up over the years, experienced in the piecemeal hash of dream review. I felt like I was in a trance. I don’t know if this is how it happens but I remember a pier, a man standing on the end, Paula Prentiss and Arkin and others wandering away, perhaps down the beach. The plane with McWatt flying it and he’s coming in to buzz the others, which he gets a kick out of doing. The man on the end of the pier is waving (Kid Sampson in the book). The plane comes in too low and off in the distance the propeller strikes the man on the pier and slices him in half. Paula screams. McWatt’s plane (we are not shown McWatt flying it I don’t believe) turns, flies high, plunges down into the ocean, McWatt killing himself. At least that is how I remember it.
And the light. The light. Which was now terrifying.
I didn’t know if I was sick already and had just begun to feel it while watching the film. But I was overcome and unable to tolerate the film anymore, had to get out of there. I felt as if I’d received a terrible shock and the world had split apart at the seams with screaming hell pouring out of its core. I wasn’t the only one leaving as my husband was with me, and I felt terribly out of place as I made my way up the aisle, which was difficult. I was struggling not to pass out. The faces in the auditorium were bright with the light reflected off the screen, all caught up in the movie, and it felt odd having to turn my back on the film. I wanted to forget. The cheapness of life. Alienation. A person as hunk of flesh that when ruptured revealed only meat, was already only meat animated by futile sense of self in which no one else participated, all selves orbiting their own heart-suns until the heart stops and the sun simultaneously darkens and all the worlds that were in one perish in the freezing cold. I wondered why I was the only one who had to leave. And the film followed. The old Italian. The sun. The watery images. Kid Sampson waving one second and sawn in two the next.
I felt weak, as if I was missing something that should have been able to keep me in my seat with the others. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t stomach it. None of the ideas explored in the black comedy were new to me, but for some reason I’d not been able to confine this particular film to fiction, to movie magic. I was thinking the movie wasn’t even that good. Disjointed. But the disjointedness, the light had amplified the alienation.
As it turned out, I was physically ill. Quite sick. But that night and the following days I had a difficult time sorting out the physical from the emotional and mental shock I’d gotten in the theater. There is illness that can make one more susceptible, marrow deep.
It was a number of years before I could bring myself to read the book. I’d pick it up and examine it. Joseph Heller. Catch 22. A slim book with yellowed pages brown at the edges and the paper brittling. The glue of the binding brittled and no longer holding.
Books don’t remain static for me, changing sometimes as I change. I might pick it up today and reading it would be a new experience.
So, last week, feeling somewhat disjointed from lots of Benadryl fighting a particularly bad week of allergies, I was thinking of the devastating weaponry of humiliation and dehumanization and of the brand of “this too shall pass” that casually distances and makes all meaningless and I thought of “Catch 22” and the old man and the futile vacuum and of the hell of Kid Sampson evaporating into no meaning whatsoever. It’s the kind of hell I taste singeing the edges when I collide with commodity culture.
Not that my life is bursting at the seams with meaning. But commodity culture is pretty remote from it.
Considering my intense reaction to the light, I find it interesting to read that the DVD release has Nichols talking about the cinematographer, how Watkins insistence on the perfect natural light meant sometimes there was only shooting for two hours a day.
On Monday Son went to see the new Grossology exhibit at the Natural History Museum. He loves the Natural History Museum. When he was five he liked the Science Museum though confused by the stuffed animals on exhibit. I knew the question would come sooner or later as he stood and stared. Why did they do that to the animal? At the Natural History Museum the exhibit before this one was on Frogs. He loves frogs. They had as part of the exhibit a display to do with a dissected frog. Son came home and said he was not going back to the museum until the dissected frog was gone. “Why did they do that to the frog?” So he went back after the Frog exhibit was gone and before the new exhibit opened. And then was all eager for the new exhibit to open. As soon as his dad was up Monday morning, Son was sayng, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” The exhibit is billed as a gross delight for kids dealing with the human body. Son got there and saw giant steroided-out Mad Magazine constructions of intestines and stuff and said it was gross and promptly wanted to leave and said he wasn’t going back until that exhibit was gone. He wasn’t amused.
Maybe because everything is already big to my son. Amplified. And the whole world is alive and talking. He’s like me when I was his age. Like I still am, actually. Other children can look at water coming out the faucet into the sink and wonder where it comes from, what’s the conduit. My son looks and sees water alive and talks to it and think it’s talking. He used to ask what is the water feeling.
Intestines on steroids were too much.
I later thought of Yossarian and the soldier with the intestines spilling out of his body.
I ought to read the book again. Perhaps I should see the film again. But I should read the book again. I wonder if any kids in high school now are reading “Catch 22” for class, are thinking about the war being fought by the military professionals and hawks as different from the war fought by Yossarian, who pragmatically is simply interested in living, the legalized insanity of war driving him into a state of paranoia where Nately’s “whore” suddenly appears everywhere trying to kill him after he delivers the message to her of Nately’s death.
What are they teaching kids in school today about war?