“I don’t say that the bird is ‘good’ or the bat is ‘bad.’ But I will say this: At least the bird is less nude.”
–Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey
After I saw the new Cats movie, my companion and I had sharply divergent assessments of what was wrong with it. I thought it gave a clinic, by negative example, on why the musical worked; my companion thought it exposed the ways the musical (and, in her opinion, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) was always a completely bats and whackadoo idea. Perhaps we’re both right!
I wanted Cats to be good. I would actually have preferred that to “so bad it’s good.” I harbored a secret judgmental suspicion that people hated Cats because movie audiences today enjoy feeling superior to the movie. They don’t want to be overwhelmed. I enjoy MST3K as much as the next nerdy jackass, but MST3K is no way to go through life–or films. So I thought, you know, what if they just can’t hang? What if this is a bats whackadoo movie that completely commits to its bats whackadoo premise, and rolls all over it in glory, and critics and audiences are just holding back out of an addiction to self-protective irony? What if Cats‘s problem is that critics were desperate to be better than it?
I’m not better than any person; I am, in fact, worse. But I might be slightly better than Cats.
Cats absolutely does commit to every choice it made. I would like to respect it for that, but the choices were bad.
There are basically two problems here. First of all, the cats have metaphysics and a plot. This is almost all from the musical itself and well confirms my companion’s point. Nobody remembers this–I had to check Wikipedia–but the musical is not in fact just songs. I regret to report that it has a story. Eliot’s poetry hasn’t got a plot, I’m like 99% sure. It’s pure whimsy. Andrew Webber, the scourge of the skating world, used a couple unpublished fragments or unrelated poems to weave together a story in which an aged cat must choose one cat each year to go to the Heaviside Layer (apparently a real astronomical thing, but also here the “Heaven-side Lair” of cat religion) and be reborn into a new life. Thus the songs about each individual cat are their entries in a kind of Eurovision of the soul. Macavity, the villain, tries to disrupt the proceedings by catnapping participants so he can be the victor and be reborn. Instead the… divine cat-judge, Old Deuteronomy, picks Grizabella, once “the Glamour Cat” but now a battered and rejected stray, and she ascends to her new life in a cloud of glory (or on an old tire, in the original, junkyard-set musical).
It’s possible that if you just don’t pay any attention to this plotline at all the movie will work better for you. The songs are perfectly serviceable and quite catchy musical-theater type stuff, and they’re acted out here with (mostly) unimaginative fidelity to the source, which is fine. But now and then the movie wants you to attend to its plot, and these moments are either distracting (Macavity is such a perfunctory villain!) or gross (“Memory”).
I love “Memory.” Okay? I love it. Of course it is kitsch. And it’s always fine to reject kitsch. But if you don’t love any kitsch, are you still a mammal?
But this Cats film highlights the problems inherent in “Memory.” Jennifer Hudson, committing to the material with every fiber of her being (they all do), delivers it with a face wracked by sobs. Her purpose is to evoke only pity. It’s entirely possible that my own memory is rose-colored, here, but my impression of the musical when I saw it was that Grizabella also evokes awe. She knows that she once touched sublimity, and some of that sublimity hangs around her still. This movie’s Grizabella doesn’t seem to know that she’s still touched by fire, and so her songs and scenes have a more groveling air; the final choice of Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) seems like Lady Bountiful bestowing a gift because of her personal superior magnanimity rather than a recognition of and bowing before Grizabella’s greatness.
“Memory” is also followed by two other songs, both of which are bad in a way that undercuts the heartfelt and touching kitsch of the musical’s breakout number. “The Meaning of Happiness” is just weird and pointless, a jumble of abstract nouns given no interesting inflection by Dench’s performance. ETA: WHOA it’s from The Four Quartets! MAYBE IT WORKS IN CONTEXT. Man, I loathed it here. Like a parody of inspirational self-help crossed with a parody of impenetrable theology. Anyway! “Beautiful Ghosts,” by Taylor Swift and new for this movie, is actively obnoxious. I’ve ranted before about the contemporary musical trend of just saying whatever emotions the characters feel, but singing!!, as if that’s art. (You know what new musical doesn’t do this? Hamilton. You know what people liked???) Bland, didactic, not trusting the audience with unexpected imagery or contradictory emotional valences–it’s so fully of our own time that it stands out like a human thumb on a badly-CGI’d cat paw.
SPEAKING OF WHICH. The other problem is the one which has led reviewers to use phrases like “existential dread” and “Congratulations to dogs.” This is the furry element. And this is where I am right, and the musical figured out how to do its whackadoo thing whereas the movie did not.
The musical’s cats are designed to look… glittery, punk-pastiche, all feathery fur and dandelion-clock hair. Don’t think of a real cat. Take the idea of a cat and throw it as hard as you can against the back of your mind, and also it’s 1981, and that’s the cats in Cats. They’re theatrical: stylized, OTT, playing to the gods, the costume and makeup equivalent of belting it out. They put you in a kaleidoscope mood and when you leave the theater the outside world seems somehow still permeable by that weird glam theatricality.
Cats the film disaster goes in the opposite direction, aiming for a seamless blend of real cat and human actor. Aspects of this are fun (I loved the ears!) but this was never a wise choice. Human-cats eat human-cockroaches. Cats undress, and suddenly you realize that there are cats around you all the time, naked. Movies allow an immediacy, an intimacy, and an illusion of everyday reality which the theater can’t provide. The thing is that I did not want to be immediate and intimate with the everyday reality of naked person-cats. This movie will make you feel like normal real cats violate the indecency laws.
Photo of T. Eliot having just watched “Cats” via Wikipedia.