Culture Canvas: Jousting with the Jellicles
In my head, Cats was another version of the televised stage musical and not a movie, so I wilfully suspended my disbelief and viewed it that way.
I watched the Tom Hooper-directed movie, Cats, in a nearly-empty theatre: there were eight, perhaps nine (ah, the poetic justice of that) people in the hall, including me, my parents, and a young man wearing blue-and-red Superman pyjamas.
It was everything they said it was: campy, weird, chaotic, and distorted. And the CGI was ghastly-- there was no doubt about that. I don't blame James Corden, who played Bustopher Jones, for refusing to watch it. Nor do I completely disagree with Taylor Swift on this one: Cats is, indeed, a "weird-ass movie". My heart goes out to Universal Pictures who lost close to 100 million dollars (that is a lot of money) on this far from 'purr-fect' movie.
I'm not surprised that the internet—that hydra-headed beast—went to town proclaiming the movie's inherent awfulness. Memes, some of them desperately funny have mushroomed across social media, while critics all over the world have universally panned the movie. "Despite its fur-midable cast, this Cats adaptation is a clawful mistake that will leave most viewers begging to be put out of their mew-sery," says Rotten Tomatoes, who’ve given the movie a single star. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times is deeply unflattering. "In feline terms, this is a movie without epic hairballs, without rear-end sniffing, without a deep, wounding scratch," she writes.
All true. All justified.
But I have a confession to make.
I loved Cats.
Now, I must admit I come from a place of extreme bias: cats, the real ones, are my spirit animals. As I type this column, two pre-pubescent cats chase each other's tails around the room and wrestle on my bed.
I remember a former partner telling me I reminded him of a cat. I don't think he meant it as a compliment, unfortunately (though if he did, I'm flattered). When we anthropomorphize cats, it's not their sensuality, beauty, independence, or high self-esteem that comes to mind, (and oh, they have oodles of that), but their selfishness, hedonism, and aloofness (I think of it as self-preservation, really).
I am unabashedly, unashamedly a crazy cat lady—I have lost men over my cats and fought with friends and family because of them. I spend more money on cat food and vet visits, every month, than on clothes or socializing. When my cats lick me, my heart does that queer little dance, that warm clutching of the stomach, the sudden uncontrollable rush of tenderness that I've always associated with the best sort of love. (The only human being who consistently makes me feel that way is my 4-year-old nephew.)
Not liking animals, including cats, is non-negotiable for me in a partner. That's the second thing I ask about, on a date, right after the first "Do you read?' query.
And, yes, this poem, one written by Eunice de Souza, has become an anthem of sorts.
if you want to learn to cope with
the otherness of lovers.
Otherness is not always neglect –
Cats return to their litter trays
when they need to.
Don't cuss out of the window
at their enemies.
That stare of perpetual surprise
in those great green eyes
will teach you
to die alone.
Music and memories segue into the other, making it almost impossible to separate the two. I can never listen to Cohen or Belafonte or the Beatles without thinking of men I once loved, who introduced me to their music, for instance. Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell take me back to various classrooms; I first listened to them in one. Shakira is"gym music"; possibly because a gym I frequented often played "Hips don't lie" on loop. And I still like some very strange songs of the '90s, mostly because it was the music of my generation, the music we listened to as tweens and teens. Think Aqua's bizarre Barbie Girl (BDSM undertones et al.); unapologetically sexist, but catchy numbers, like Peter Andre's Mysterious Girl and Lou Bega's Mambo No. 5; sappy bullshit like Backstreet Boys, Boyzone and Westlife; most of Madonna and Jennifer Lopez (man, those two just don't age) …
Which is why, even though most high-brow critics have an exceedingly low opinion of his music, I rather like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Webber, whose stage musical by the same name inspired the movie, is a remnant of my childhood, the music my father played at home when I was a little girl. And, despite its many flaws, I like it because it brings back memories of feeling safe and warm and loved.
I'm aware, of course, that Webber’s work is unashamedly what writer, critic and philosopher, Dwight Macdonald would call"Masscult." In his seminal, if inflammatory essay, titled Masscult and Midcult, he distinguishes masscult from what he calls "High Culture" (he calls masscult a "parody of high culture" and "anti-art") and explains why he dislikes it so much. "Masscult offers its customers neither emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for these demand efforts. The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction," he writes in this essay.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is certainly about distraction. His talent in creating spectacle often masks mawkish narrative, puerile lyrics and unoriginal, often "borrowed" music. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik refers to him as "the guy who dragged the Broadway musical from its vitality and idiomatic urgency back to its melodramatic roots in European operetta.”
I must confess that the same thought hit me while watching Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Phantom is a visual treat, but its plot, based on the Gaston Leroux novel by the same name, is deeply disturbing when viewed through today's lens: Webber has essentially romanticized a stalker and serial killer. Also, the lyrics are terrible. I mean look at these from the song titled Think of Me.
We never said our love was evergreen
Or as unchanging as the sea
But if you can still remember
Stop and think of me
Think of all the things
We've shared and seen
Don't think about the way
Things might have been
Maybe it's my age or the fact I can't stomach sappy mush, but these are so syrupy sweet that I know I'll get diabetes.
Cats, however, is one of Webber's best, I think. Mostly because he didn't write the lyrics—TS Eliot did. Webber’s Cats is a transmogrified version of Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a collection of light, whimsical poems, profiling various cats and the parallel universe they prance through. I haven’t yet managed to figure out if the collection is a metaphor for something important or just nonsense verse. But it is undeniably charming, clever and funny; also, often very astute.
Like this bit.
Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Or this one.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream
Now before I descend into a morass of verse and kitty talk, I must add, I haven't seen the actual musical, live, yet. But I did see a televised version online and really liked watching super-fit people with painted faces, dressed in leotards and legwarmers, launch into somersault and song. I'm not sure its great art; in fact, I'm almost sure it isn't, but it's a lot of fun. And it's a fabulous spectacle.
Frank Rich of the New York Times, who reviewed the musical when it opened at the Winter Garden on Broadway on October 7th 1982, says as much. Cats, he writes is "a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theatre and yet, these days only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of ''Cats,'' it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers."
At the risk of being lambasted by more serious critics (I am not, nor have ever been a movie critic), I must point out that the movie did get a few things right.
Some of the performances are stellar, for instance. Francesca Hayward, who plays the lead, Victoria, for instance, is feline grace personified: mincing movements; slanted, widening eyes; a soft-footed, slinking gait (and oh, she is so beautiful in that "how can anyone be so perfect way" --fur, whiskers et al.). Another star? Taylor Swift whose sassy, uninhibited Bombalurina introduces Macavity, in a scene mildly reminiscent of Moulin Rouge's ‘Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend’. And, despite the snot and tears, Jennifer Hudson's ‘Memory’ is hair, or rather fur-raisingly, beautiful: one of the best bits of the movie.
Also, I grew a bit tired of all that criticism of Cats being too "sexual". Yes, the choreography is sensual--mostly because cats are beautiful, alluring, light-footed creatures--but so what? Real cats do rub each other and swish their tails in unison (they also smell each other's butts, thankfully Cats did not capture that) when they hang out. Besides, you know, the Jellicle cats are supposed to be unneutered, feral cats. I rest my case.
What I will not dispute is the flimsy plot, explained right at the onset through one of my favourite songs ‘Invitation to the Jellicle Ball’.
Jellicle cats meet once a year
At the Jellicle ball where we all rejoice
And the Jellicle leader will appear
And make what is known as the Jellicle choice
Trust me, except for the few interludes with the evil Macavity the Mystery Cat, this is the plot. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, who appears to be critical of both the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and the recent movie version of it, sums it up in a single line. “Cats” is a talent show, and the prize is euthanasia. Hello, kitty.”
So, yes, Cats is a bad film. Mostly because it is a fairly straight adaptation of a stage musical, with no modifications made to suit a very different medium. But it’s not that bad. In my head, it was another version of the televised stage musical and not a movie, so I wilfully suspended my disbelief and viewed it that way.
And, yes, thoroughly enjoyed myself.
PS: You're welcome to think, that, as TS Eliot writes, "I'm as mad as a hatter."