Saturday, December 28, 2019

Yes, CATS is worth seeing

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:

Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax—”
…and CATS

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie so roundly panned by critics and filmgoers alike as CATS. While there are many films that one of these groups loves while the other hates it, audiences and critics are in agreement on this one—They hate it. So what I’m about to say will, I’m sure, be met with skepticism and the impression that I’m simply being contrary and arch. I assure you, I mean nothing of the kind when I say CATS is an amazing movie, and if you don’t see it in a theater, you’re missing an experience.

CATS is unrepentantly kitschy, and deeply surrealistic—a combination guaranteed to confuse people. It unfolds like a dream, much like INFERNO, or EYES WIDE SHUT. It exists in a world we can only see through a hazy mist. It is alien and discomfiting.

It borrows its tropes from a wild variety of films. At times, it reminded me of everything from ALL THAT JAZZ to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with a little WAITING FOR GODOT thrown in for good measure. The world is portrayed as grimy, trash-ridden, and virtually devoid of people. The story unfolds in a series of barely connected vignettes. By far the weirdest features scared mice, forced to perform for a dictatorial cat, and cockroaches dancing like Rockettes. Holy fuck, man! How come you haven’t gone to see this already?

The signs on the buildings are all cat-related, suggesting a future where people escape the city to get away from the cats. The only people we see are at the beginning, and they appear to be preparing to leave town, throwing their house cat in alley before speeding away. We’re not supposed to ask where they’re going. They’re humans and humans don’t matter in this world.

Like any good, risk-taking movie, there is a potential subtext that lurks dangerously close to the surface. The cat at the center of the story is a white cat named Victoria. Victoria is invited to join a tribe of cats (the Jellicles) while a scruffy black cat (Grizabella, well-played by Jennifer Hudson) is forced to crawl in the shadows, crying and endlessly singing “Memories” because she chose to follow Macavity (who is the blackest cat in the movie). Fortunately, there’s Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) to keep this metaphor from being too cut and dried.

The biggest knock against the film is its lack of an overall tone. Some vignettes are poignant, some are silly, some are, well, just plain weird. James Corden and Rebel Wilson are given carte blanche to ad lib and be as silly as the want. It’s funny, but it doesn’t mesh well with darker moments in the story. Macavity seems to have extraordinary powers except when it doesn’t suit the narrative.

The real problem with this film is that it asks for emotional engagement from its audience, but the audience for this kind of surrealism is allergic to emotional content. That leaves a very small audience, indeed, for a film that was supposed to be a seasonal blockbuster. But here’s the thing: Surrealism is supposed to be emotionally challenging. It’s supposed to provoke the viewer into a conflict between their emotions and the logical mind, thus opening up new ways of thinking. I’m not sure any film has accomplished this as successfully as CATS since UN CHIEN ANDALOU. Yet, I see the various reviews of this film and many of them are angry, mouth-foaming rants against this film. For heaven’s sake, why? Do they feel threatened by this movie? Maybe the age of surrealism is truly over and a film like this has no place in the modern world. To quote Jon Voigt in RUNAWAY TRAIN: “More's the pity, youngster. More's the pity.”

I went to the movie on Christmas Eve. Normally this is a good night for the cinemas, but while the other theaters were filled, there were only ten of us at CATS. At the end of the show, the rest audience stumbled out with confused expressions on their faces. That's almost worth the price of admission alone.

Go see this movie if you can. It will only be in the cinemas for a short while, and a small screen won’t do it justice. I think this film, like STARSHIP TROOPERS, LIQUID SKY, SHOWGIRLS, and David Lynch’s DUNE will be one of those movies that will find its audience years later. Then people will look at each other and wonder why people didn’t appreciate it at the time.

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