the heaviside layer

A Few Thoughts on Watching Cats Alone

We are all now the cats of Cats, prowling in the shadows of our tattered culture, reliving memories in the ruined theaters of our minds. Photo: Universal Pictures

As the spread of the coronavirus continues to halt the release of new movies in theaters, Vulture’s film critics will be sporadically reconsidering the movies available to stream from home instead.

This month, the Golden Raspberry awards (the Razzies) were nearly swept by the movie version of Cats, a predictable and — at least for this viewer — disheartening final mauling of a creature long dead. But there are misconceived movies and movies that are so misconceived that they’re haunting, evoking complex emotions (despair, futility, the impossibility of transcendence) in ways that conventionally “good” films — Oscar winners, even — don’t come near. Two months after watching it — in a near-empty theater in a suburban multiplex, my family defiantly not with me — I continue to brood on its failings, which seem even more resonant as a virus shuts down human society. We are all now the cats of Cats, prowling in the shadows of our tattered culture, reliving memories in the ruined theaters of our minds, longing for a way out.

Few films have been as insistently misdirected from first frame to last, but it’s worth asking if Cats — even without its auteur, Tom Hooper — could have been a mainstream hit on the big screen. My answer is a firm maybe. The backbone is solid: Years before the musical, I participated in a high school “readers theater” performance of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and the poems sounded delightful. Depicting the aristocrats (or should I say aristocats?) of Eliot’s time, they were arch but droll, the feline aspect providing the perfect satirical distance. Eliot’s verses come through even set to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s mostly banal tunes, but what sold the musical (originally directed by longtime Royal Shakespeare Company head Trevor Nunn) was its live-wire ensemble vibe, its overflowing sense of occasion. Movement on the stage was constant and eye-catching: Cats watched cats, and we watched cats watching cats — watching us. Sharing the space was all. The ’70s phenomenon of A Chorus Line was still very much in the air, and Cats was its sillier, more surreal cousin, albeit with a happier — quasi-religious — ending. A director who shot the dances straight-on with no fancy cutting might have replicated some of the show’s magic, while one with an Edward Gorey- or Ronald Searle-like visual sense (Tim Burton, say) might have made its universe all of a piece.

Although I am here to celebrate the existing film of Cats and not to autopsy it, it must be analyzed pitilessly to understand why it’s such a model of disunity — that disunity being central to its artistic power. One of Hooper’s first and most lunkheaded decisions was to film the action with a shaky, hand-held camera, presumably to add a bit of that theatrical live-wire-ness. But the effect is to overhype every image: “Look here! Here! Now here!” He won’t let you focus. Hooper did the same in his smash-hit Les Misérables (in my review of that film, I imagined the cameraman to be “small, fleet, and extremely high strung, like Gollum”) but Cats is frenetically edited, the bombardment intensified. The movie is shaky and jumpy — overcaffeinated. The editing chops the dances into pieces so small that you can’t appreciate (or depreciate, for that matter) the work of Broadway choreographer Andy Blankenbueler. In the musical’s latest Broadway iteration, Blankenbueler individualized the dancers’ movements so they’d coalesce and diverge, coalesce and diverge, but the randomness of Hooper’s cutting makes it difficult to discern any pattern. It’s as if you’ve walked into a dance studio before rehearsal and found each performer working on his or her own routine. You say, “Hello? Is there going to be a show?”

Which raises the question of storytelling. Les Misérables survived its overdirection thanks to clear narrative beats, while Cats never gets you past the what the fuck am I even watching? stage. A bagged cat — Victoria, played by prima ballerina Francesca Hayward — is dumped in a London alley by a presumably rich woman and then descended upon by numerous “Jellicle” felines, who tell her “Victoria” isn’t much of a name for a cat but somehow fail (after performing a big number about naming cats) to give her a new one. Somewhat oriented (more than the audience, anyway), Victoria meets Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who will judge an annual talent competition in an empty theater to determine which cat will get to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer” and then be reborn — someplace better, one hopes. A villain called Macavity (Idris Elba) attempts to win the contest by beaming every other contestant across town, whereupon … Are you still reading? I don’t know why I’m even attempting a synopsis, except to say I relate to the cats’ desire to leave their world STAT. It’s an ugly place, its unpleasantness exacerbated by Hooper’s decision to stab our eyes with backlighting. The computer-generated fur seems to me the least of the movie’s infelicities.

Just as the recent film version of Annie managed to make a hash of the surefire number “Tomorrow,” Cats comes a cropper with the song everyone knows, “Memories.” In the role of a fallen feline — the unsavory implication is that she was used up by the pimplike Macavity — Jennifer Hudson makes the mistake of leading with her character’s despair, acting “Memories” instead of letting the words and music do the work. Her histrionics overwhelm the melody. She reminded me of an amateur actress I once knew who told me her death scene would make everyone in the theater weep, whereas what happened was that she did all weeping and the audience sat stone-faced. As for Judi Dench, she has the task of summing up Cats in song while having no talent as a singer. It’s as if an actress playing Mother Superior sang “Climb Every Mountain” and lost her breath midway through, suggesting the likelihood of falling into a crevice.

It is the stupendousness of its failure that makes Cats so arresting, so vivid, so heartbreaking. It is, from start to finish, the bleakest movie musical ever made, effectively reimagining the world as a cavernous void filled with decaying piles of garbage and creatures neither human nor animal but gruesome, H.G. Wellesian hybrids. Is this how we will look when we de-evolve, having been ravaged by pandemics and global warming? Perhaps it is only as beings half-human and half-cat will we be able to survive at all, feeding on mice and cockroaches and clawing at those who would invade our private spaces. But as these creatures are denuded of procreative organs, the very perpetuation of the species remains in doubt.

From this perspective, the inability of the dancers to merge into an organic whole can be seen as the movie’s strength, not its weakness, the cats’ very name a mockery: Jellicles don’t jell. Separateness is the human/feline condition, dispersal the principle that underlines all motion. There are fleeting moments of exhilaration when a dance is executed fluidly or a pleasing melody wafts up from the mushy recitative. They are signs that the gods yet live — but barely, as a faint warmth at the center of a compost heap. Imagine Beckett’s Endgame with mange and you have something close to the artistic purity of Cats.

The movie’s best imaginable audience would be people in shelters slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning — or waiting for the next coronavirus. In the meantime, here we are, looking for movies to stream, and what could be more apropos? It’s ironic but fitting that you can’t watch it at this moment with a large group of friends, from whom you must “social-distance.” (Yes, it’s a compound verb now — and forever.) Watching it alone will make you feel exponentially more alone. You will know at once that the existence of a “Heaviside Layer” is a sham — what Eugene O’Neill called a life lie to keep us all from committing suicide.

I love this movie.

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A Few Thoughts on Watching Cats Alone