Alan Arkin & American Artistry

Sean Murphy
3 min readJul 1, 2023

When it rains, it pours, so of course news breaks that the beloved, completely irreplaceable Alan Arkin has left us earthlings behind for better adventures.

Before he became the always-lovable cantankerous old guy, he was (like so many, but not all, of us) young once, the main attraction as opposed to supporting actor (he’s remarkable in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter from ’68, and later, indelible in smaller doses in everything from Glengarry Glenn Ross to Grosse Pointe Blank to the under-appreciated Sunshine Cleaning, and obviously there’s the well-deserved Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine). But for me, the role that bookmarks his entire career, before and after 1970, is the once-in-a-lifetime tour de force of an ostensibly unfilmable book, Yossarian in Catch-22.

Being one of my (and, obviously, many, many others’) favorite books, I should have positively loathed this movie on pretty much any level. How could they pull it off? How dare they try? Somehow, it works, and while the awesome screenplay (h/t to the oft-uncelebrated Buck Henry) and stellar casting (Charles Grodin, Martin Sheen, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Bob Balaban, Jon Voigt, Norman Fell (!), Orson Welles, Art Garfunkel for God’s sake — and proving the universe always has a plan: if “Tom” isn’t cast in this film, this song never gets written and music history and the history of our time on this planet is the lesser for it) — and close-to-perfect direction from Mike Nichols all help, the whole thing would implode on sight without the perfect (only?) person who could strap on the leather flight jacket and convey the hilarious and bitter multitudes that WWII bombardier John Yossarian contains: Alan MF Arkin. It’s unlikely any other actor (and this was a time when giants strode the earth) could have more aptly combined the anger (Arkin yelling was itself an art form), wounded sensitivity, bone-deep anxiety, self-effacing humor and, yes, charm, that the role requires.

Catch-22, while without doubt the funniest book I’ve ever read (Martin Amis’s Money rides shot-gun in the cockpit), is also scary in all the adult ways. It’s the rare book that scares me more, as a middle-aged man, than it did when I first read it, as a teen. This is because I’ve seen all the ways just about everything Heller described has either been proven true ten-fold or else super-sized to be, sadly, uncontainable by satire.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of our military mores is at once accurate, but also selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is distressingly relevant, well into the 21st century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups divide the spoils and conquer their 401Ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who illustrates what our country has become. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via shares while seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts. Here it is, adequately conveyed in under 30 seconds.

Bonus brilliance.

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Sean Murphy

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net