This past Sunday, a gaggle of my friends and I decided to go see Cats at a theatre in Berkeley, CA. The only showtime that day was at 4:20… obviously. We showed up right on time handing each other different varietals of edibles as the lights went down. From the opening shot, the entire audience was screaming with laughter and delight, and at one point I literally bellowed “What’s happening? She’s sobbing for reasons unknown” which prompted a very large outburst of laughter from the rows around me, making the one guy who was actually there to see the show yell at everyone and get the usher to come to calm us down. No-one stopped laughing. We left the film uniformly confused, agitated, elated and buzzing. Everyone in our group had bad dreams that night.
At the core of the conundrum that is Cats, the Musical lies this question: Is Cats a horrific display of the misuse of funds to make a film this carelessly, or, is it an ingenious, multi-generational Exquisite Corpse of Dadaist performance art spectacle? As a dog person, I think I will never fully understand.
First, a brief history of Cats:
Cats the original play, which debuted on Broadway in 1982, was based on a poem written by Literary Nobel Prize winner T.S. Elliot, most famous for writing a long AF poem about being really, really tired (The Waste Land, 1921). He wrote “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” in 1939, which is literally a collection of poems about his favorite cats with lines like:
“He is quiet and small, he is black
From the ears to the tip of his tail
He can creep through the tiniest crack
He can walk on the narrowest rail”
… really trailblazing the path for Dr. Suess to come to fame in the 60’s, ey?
Anyway, in the early 80s, Andrew Lloyd Webber, award-winning composer famous for award-winning Broadway his like Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream coat and Phantom of the Opera, decided to put these poems to music and turn it into the immersive theater experience that is Cats. I dunno if you’re super familiar with the NYC performance art scene in the 80’s, but a bunch of cat-like people in leotards crawling around a sparse stage filled with garbage is a pretty good visual summary of what a caricature of it would look like. As a child growing up in New York in the 80’s, I was constantly bombarded with advertisements for this show. I was blanket horrified by the performers who were not quite animal not quite human, and avoided it and the small but mighty group of weird theater nerds that were into it in my school. But I digress. Basically, the take away here is: Some guy prolly spent way too much time alone in his apartment drinking and making up poems about his cats, and here we are over 7 decades later still celebrating that work. Ah, to be born white and male into an academic family in Boston and have everything you say carved in marble on the side of a historic building.
Cut to 2019: Revival-palooza is in full effect. All kinds of shit is coming out of the woodwork. Sequels to Star Wars? Of course. A modern reimagining of Party of 5? Sure. Full House, again? You got it, dude. So I guess the next logical step is to dreg through this Cats material and see what we could make of it as a society today. And, in the most mindless manner, Hollywood started to compile a cast and crew. The casting feels like it was done by an optimized casting algorithm rather than an actual human being making thoughtful decisions. Distinguished old cats, a no-brainer: Sir Ian Mckellen, Sir Idris Elba and Dame Judy Dench. Chubby comedic actress: Rebel Wilson, obviously. Sexy pop star cat? Taylor Swift. But here’s the thing: None of these people are movement artists or even dancers. I’m sure none of these people had to audition. They plod across the screen in digital furry leotards with the elegance of… well an 80-year-old English man in a digital catsuit. It’s like watching a bunch of adults try to get in touch with their inner child and play pretend, except they’re so, so far removed from what that even means it just reads as terrible. But none of these performers are terrible performers, they’re some of the best in a generation, which begs the question: What happened? This is phase one of levels of confusion, but the rabbit hole gets deeper.
The carelessness with which the Art Direction was done is physically painful to witness. I am not joking. I am not exaggerating. There is not a single second out of the whole movie where everything on the screen, including the screen itself because everything is shot handheld, is not moving with wild abandon. It’s a maniacal carousel ride of fur and human body parts. The film feels like a deep study on what happens when you give a team of creatives no time, support or leadership and a very, very shitty deadline. Clearly everyone in charge of making any kind of aesthetic decision went completely rogue and everyone just agreed to disagree on everything to meet deadlines. Whole sets are nonsensically designed around a cool texture like fur or cobblestones without consideration for scale or narrative. It’s like no one bothered to try and make a physical space that made sense for the scale of a cat, or a stage set that fits the narrative about a karaoke-to-the-death event (which is actually the plot of Cats. People sing songs introducing themselves to Deuteronomy (Judy Dench, though in the play the cat is a male) who decides who is the best. The winner of the contest dies and is reborn, losing one of their nine lives. That’s it. That’s the whole story, a crazy American Idol to the death). Characters just move from disconnected scene to disconnected scene with no explanation or common thread, constantly changing sizes, backgrounds and scales. It leaves the brain exhausted from trying to make sense of the physical space, like staring at a bad perspective drawing or an M.C. Esher composition for too long. My entire body felt like jelly afterward, and a friend kept screaming “my hands are tingling!” throughout the viewing.
So. Here’s where my mind really starts to explode. How does one evaluate a movie about a play about a poem about some recluse’s cats? When the source material itself is so fucking ridiculous, how does one make a dignified film out of it? This is where the dadaist exquisite corpse comes in.
In case you don’t know, here are definitions of those words:
Dadaism is an art movement that started in Europe in the early 20th century as a reaction to WWI. Dadaism is most famed for Duchamp’s work “Fountain” where he drunkenly ripped a urinal off of a bathroom wall in a bar and put it in a gallery after signing it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, insisting it was art. It was hotly contested at the time and helped introduce the concept of art not being exclusively about technical skill, but also about introducing cultural ideas like anti-materialism into the mainstream gallery world. Many post-modern conceptual artists today still make work on some variety of this theme, which is basically a hysterical “fuck you” to anyone stupid and rich enough to buy a banana taped to a gallery wall for tens of thousands of dollars, a Robinhood-ing with flair, if you will.
Exquisite Corpse is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled to create something an individual could not create on their own. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed. It allows for unexpected forms, connections and ideas. The process of how the art is made is as important as the art itself because if you weren’t aware something was created with the Exquisite Corpse method, it might just look like a crazy drawing or piece of writing. Dadaists invented this method and used to collaborate like this on things like collages or poems. My fellow art nerds used to make these in middle school by passing carefully folded notes around chorus class.
Now. I don’t know much, but I do know that going to art school has really trained me in how to turn utter and complete garbage into a thought exercise. With this level of understanding of art history, if one was pompous enough, one could spend hours critiquing the mark-making of a toddler and liken it to Picasso’s Guernica, making lesser minds bow in admiration. I spent much of my academic career trying to find meaning and connection with the work of artists like T.S. Eliot or guys who paint tons of pictures of boats; born with A Room of Their Own, a panoply of supporters and not much to say. Empathizing with bores is a skill I’ve honed over decades for better or worse, which makes engaging with any type of media kind of exhausting and demanding. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if I’m just trying to find something where a void exists because I like when things have meaning, but regardless of whatever ten-dollar words I can assign to the abomination that is Cats the Movie, I do truly believe it defies the binary of good or bad. And that's always the question people have when you say you saw a film/play/piece of art/song/etc, right? “Was it good? Did you like it?”
Does it even matter? How arrogant is it to assume my opinion of something defines it. Whether or not I like it is simply not an answerable question for Cats. I mean, define “good”. Was it a well-crafted film? No. Were there any standout pieces of it that I was drawn to like the performances, songs or visuals? No. But… it’s literally all I can think about. It’s all I can talk about today, and it made me spend hours of time researching its history, refreshing my memory on art history and writing a multi-paragraph article about it because that was the only logical conclusion for me. It motivated me to question things and do something outside of my norm. A Dadaist would consider that a successful piece of art I guess.
One could surmise that each iteration of Cats from the book of poems to the play to the films (there was a live-action version of it made in 1998), are delicious Dadaist add-ons on a Cat-shaped Exquisite Corpse, no? If that’s true, then it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, it matters if you’re in on the joke. Were me and a room full of stoned theater goers in on the joke, or was the one guy shushing us and taking it seriously in on the joke? If the theater show was meant to be immersive and experiential, isn’t me coming to the movie theater stoned just adding an additional layer to the mystical exquisite corpse that’s been building itself over 7 decades? Or am I just being a douche? As much as I am trying to get it… I think I’m just a dog person.