Published on May 27th, 2020 | by Jeff Thiessen0
Jeff loses a bet and has to watch and review Cats, which sends him spiraling down a horrifying, pain-fueled hole of existential fear and loathing.
Within the first 15 minutes of 2019’s Cats, you pick up on a daunting, inescapable fact that all but the least astute viewer will almost instantly realize: Cats is not about cats; it’s about the journey you’re on as a result of watching Cats. Its reality isn’t much more than a galactic smokescreen that swiftly shoves itself aside and leaves you with not much more than millions of brain synapses quivering in unison. It really is one of those extremely rare events that can only survive alone, in its own torturous ecosystem. Cats sadistically allow us the opportunity to peer in, but sans any warning that our reflection, and the profound implications of seeing ourselves through the Cats prism, will inevitably corner even the most self-actualized soul into a Mobius strip of airbrushed cat buttholes and a tornado of, “why?”
About a week ago I was playing video games with my five-year old daughter and I could tell something was really bothering her. She initially didn’t want to answer, but when pressed, she put her face in her hands and said, “I just don’t understand people, and why are what they are.” It was an amazingly poignant moment for a father, as I got to see her young brain trying desperately to carve out any morsels she could, from a vastness she couldn’t possibly begin to comprehend. It was definitely an incredibly difficult moment to navigate for a father, but that crumpled, frustrated face she made as she experienced her first, little adorable existential crisis, was probably some variation of the face and sublime agony I grappled with during the entire 110-minute running time of Cats.
If you do plan on watching Cats, for god knows what reason, you really should be mentally prepared to wrestle with the “why” question a lot, likely constantly. For the most part this isn’t too disconcerting, a lot of garden variety harmless pub talk from the macro (“Why did this get made? What does its existence tell us about the movie industry?”) to the micro (“Why did Judi Dench accept a role at this stage in her career, that has her look almost identical to the lion from Wizard of Oz?”). This isn’t entirely uncommon in the realm of god-awful films, but in Cats they get hurled at us at such a frenetic pace, the vexation snowballs into an unrelenting blitzkrieg assault, leaving the viewer no choice but to crumple into a trembling mess, as shredded nerves desperately scan the IMDB trivia page in a search for any form of available elucidation.
Allow me to provide a proper example. I have always been a strong supporter of the monoculture concept, at least as an idea that a society can really utilize when the timing/catalyst are in lockstep with each other. I do miss monoculture in this fragmented society we’re currently in, and I do really believe that it’s a good thing to have a lot of people to have a shared experience. But, there is a scene in Cats, maybe an hour in where Mr. Mistofolees (played by Laurie Anderson), is attempting to do magic or some shit in the hopes he can resurrect the recently murdered Old Deuteronomy (Dench), and all of a sudden I found myself starting to second-guess that whole monoculture thing.
A whole lot of people in the eighties shared a bond over their love of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and that in itself is a devastating blow to anybody pining for the lost days of collective admiration over cultural zeitgeists. All of a sudden Cats is forcing me to fully appreciate the insidious potential of monoculture. I began to visualize hordes of marauders in velour cat suits, marching fiercely to the insipid songs and lyrics of “The Rum Tum Tigger.” I will concede it probably wasn’t actually like that in 1981, but these are the sorts of images and ideas that Cats really makes seem fully plausible.
At another point in the movie, Rebel Wilson was hissing about in some wildly out-of-scale CGI set piece (this movie has some incredibly brutal scaling issues), delightfully hamming it up with a, “cat got your tongue?” wisecrack (Cats just couldn’t help themselves, they dropped this line in first 15 minutes. Savagery). When this image soiled my screen, I immediately grew a bit wistful for twenty-year old Jeff, a nihilistic and grubby kid with a real flair for “humanity doesn’t have much of a future” drunken diatribes. Sure, that Jeff was a textbook shmuck who saw extended pub discussions as a perfectly valid form of shitfaced intelligentsia, but at least he envisioned a properly bleak future, one without the audacity or iron will to unleash something like Cats into the world.
There so many ways for big studio films misfire on such a fundamental level, but there tends to be a sliding scale when it comes to examining the autopsy of utter disconnect between the art and those whom it’s intended for. There is failure to read the room, followed by tone deaf, and the most catastrophic clusterfucks generally fall into the last category, which would best be described as losing the plot.
Well last night Cats provided a roadmap to a previously untapped realm that exists beyond that land of wind and ghosts we thought all sort of assumed was the permanent resting place for all the worst imaginable artistic fuck-ups.
The moment you finish Cats, is the moment it dissolves into the ether, and guiding lights arise, urging us forward as if we had any say in the matter.
That’s the best way I can possibly describe the Hadean terraform that houses Cats. It’s impossible to know what, if anything exists beyond there, frankly I don’t want to know. Possibly The Teal Album.
Speaking of losing the plot, Cats is abundantly transparent in their belief that plot is actually an expendable feature, smartly cutting the fat on any form of narrative that might get in the way of street cats crooning/auditioning for some divine launch into feline nirvana. And that summary is the crux of Cats. I think. Previously mentioned Old Deuteronomy is some esoteric judge that is faced with the daunting task of deciding which cat gets sent upwards into the great gig in the sky. Think St. Peter, but instead of his scroll of your life’s misdeeds, it’s an eighty-year old furry whose sole criteria for eternal bliss is the tracking which of these mutants can hold the straightest face while belting out a bunch of horrific songs Webber wrote about cats, and only cats.
(There isn’t much to say about the songs themselves, other than they will almost certainly rank right among the shittiest pieces of music you’ll be exposed to over the course of your entire life.)
Essentially, this second-life audition is what the viewer is expected to be invested in, and it can’t be understated just how insulting that notion really is. Jennifer Hudson’s character Grizabella is the dark horse favorite to win, and does indeed coming out the victor, obtaining cosmic bliss through some back-alley affirmative action quota or something, as her character is mocked by the other white, very white cats basically every time she’s on screen. And while we’re on the topic of the latent racism layered throughout the Cats universe, Idris Alba is the only other black actor in the film, playing an evil, murdering hobo cat. To say Stringer Bell has been significantly contaminated to me is certainly feeling like quite an understatement as I write this. I can only hope time makes the damage more manageable, but today I’m not loving my chances.
I hated musicals intensely going into Cats, but I will freely admit much of that was operating under misguided generalizations (all of which simultaneously seem to be both equally fair and unfair, somehow), but none of them really smacked of hyperbolic simplification of the genre. I suppose I do say things like, “every musical seems like it’s all songs and no dialogue,” or, “all I see is dancing and prancing, nobody ever goes to a different spot with a normal walk,” with an annoying smirk, but there is some internal truth I’m sincerely attempting to convey. I know those critiques aren’t technically true, but they certainly don’t feel like gross exaggerations in regard to how I absorb musicals, so I guess I never really saw the point of examining musicals on any closer level. The finish line is in sight, but it’s hard to summon the strength to push through the agony when I know 2002’s Chicago is the one holding the Gatorade as I cross.
Another way of saying all this: have known for a quite some time and beyond a shadow of a doubt musicals just ain’t for me. I’m just not a sucker for an artform that is almost exclusively built around extracting every single ounce of pseudo pageantry out of these performers, sans anesthesia.
But one of the more amazing things about Cats is it takes my round-down assessments, and goes all in with them, stamping its adversaries with some hilarious, undeserved validity in the process. Cats does indeed almost entirely bypass any form of dialogue in the first third of the movie, and by the time James Corden’s character randomly shows up halfway through, we’ve had maybe six lines spoken that weren’t in sing-song. And every time all these CGI/Microsoft Paint creatures are mobile, it’s in the form of comically exaggerated crawls or prowls. This might be the first film in history that simultaneously transcends the source material, while also begging to be buried alive by it.
With that said, I can’t think of a worse musical one might pick if they are trying to get someone else into the genre. It’s the equivalent of someone saying, “I hate punk music, every song is two minutes and they all sound the same,” and their friend enthusiastically shoving a Fat Wreck Chords 30-song sampler in their hands, exclaiming “Wait till you hear this!”
As incredibly bizarre as all of this surely sounds is, it’s probably nothing compared to the pure, outright insanity of Hooper’s entire framework he employs here. You know how, like, most directors know that a musical play is different than a musical movie, so they tend to adapt, and implement an approach that works in film-form?
Not Hooper! Not content to allow the filthy movie medium sully up the glory that is Cats, this theater purist transplanted the play experience right down to the smallest detail, to the theatrical edition. Cat characters hover/lurk/lick around other characters as their tales curl to hit those tough octaves. Every scene seems like it displays every fucking cast member in the background, with the seemingly sole purpose to remind us that a whole lotta derelict cat beings can’t wait for Ol’ Lioness to pick them for the Heaven’s Gate type ascension that would make Marshall Applewhite proud – assuming of course, he wasn’t a dog person.
We really can’t go any further here without getting into the infamous first cut of the film, one that gave us wonderful angles into all of the cat’s chocolate starfishes. Apparently, this was a hill Hooper chose to die on. For reasons completely unbeknownst to me, test audiences balked at cat-Jason Derulo’s cornhole front and center, so the final cut lost those brilliant tunnel vision shots. The important takeaways from all this are as follows:
A person was hired specifically to create digital cat-people assholes.
Another person was hired to remove those digital cat-people assholes.
Hooper should never compromise his artistic vision again.
Ultimately, there really appears to be no discernible way anyone can watch Cats, and not be prompted to go into an immediate deep dive into a hopeless barrage of whys. At first glance it seems like nothing more than a standard postmortem we all do for any epically awful film, but it doesn’t take long before I started to feel like a dog chasing his tail. I was no closer to justifying Cats’ existence after the film, as I was before I saw it. I don’t think I can put a number on how much time I invested in Cats related side quests, but I did manage to scroll through a fair number of reviews from other critics. After about a half-dozen or so, it was absolutely staggering how not one journalist managed to penetrate Cats’ facetious façade, none managed to slice to the bone.
There are things one can dissect within the actual movie if so inclined/masochistic. There’s a pretty healthy dose of crypto-fascism that could’ve been more of a talking point of Cats if it were to include even a shard of coherence. Sadly, even that narrative is cruelly revoked, and doesn’t serve as much more than a rancid undercurrent reminder that there are many things (Cats), people (Andrew Lloyd Webber), that deserve to exist only if that existence is defined entirely by heads on pikes. Yes, we do need to be reminded of hideously banal cultural movements, but excavating and force feeding them to future generations dumps a lot of needless whys onto their lap. Kids have enough of those these days, and eventually those whys will circle back to us, and we’ll have a lot of shamefaced explaining to do.