Cats the movie is worse than bad. It is offal.
Its director, Tom Hooper, utterly guts the gentle soul of T.S. Eliot’s classic Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, from which the film is drawn as if by a child’s hand in green and orange crayon. An absent-minded salmon walking unarmed into the Kitten Heel Bar at Happy Hour would not – could not – be eviscerated more heartlessly.
What’s been dropped at the paying public’s shoes is a cinematic blood simple so horrifying it could make Old Possum’s Macavity the Mystery Cat swear off depravity.
Yet sitting through two hours of mindless repeated failures is far from the worst of things for those who risked forking over hard-earned kibble to sit through Cats. Sure the saccharine song stylings, the inexplicable bursting forth into shimmy-shimmy-stop-drop-and-roll dance numbers, the reckless waste of talents such as Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, and the constant super-hyper-extra-extra-extra-extravaganzas of pure, hard-core directorial self-indulgence are, individually and collectively, a little much. But the real agony of Cats is unravelling the yarn’s deepest mystery: Why on earth am I here in the first place?
The question isn’t abstract. It has the hard-edged reality of waking up feeling as if you’re handcuffed to a radiator in a freezing room of a house in a soulless Moscow suburb as six pint-sized KGB officers in angry-clown face paint shriek at you to confess. And then realizing you, in fact, are handcuffed to that radiator. Or some reasonable variation thereof.
We have all been there, have we not? Our minds reassure us we’ve done nothing to be sorry about. Our hearts, on the contrary, beat out with each pulse the conundrum: “If I’m here, doesn’t it mean I must have done something as least a little bit terrible?” What we covet is to poke a finger through the veil of existence and spy the answer as to why our accusers sound so, well, credible, even with their KGB hats and clown faces.
Here is where Cats moves beyond being just a box office bomb – one more bit of messy business in the director’s decidedly spotty oeuvre – and turns into a fun house mirror examination of our own souls. It forces us to consider honestly our own cultural complicity in turning a work by a 20th century literary genius into $90 million worth of lumpy kitty litter.
It seems as if we are all, in varying degrees, party to, participants in, echo chamber purveyors of, a culture that now cavalierly ransacks its past genius and sells it back to us in the form of ersatz “entertainment products.” The very existence of Cats affirms how instinctively the industry’s marketing moguls dismiss us as such pathetic marks that they can get us to buy anything, so long as they sell it with the right hype.
This time “anything” was a rotten fish tale filched from T. S. Eliot via Andrew Lloyd Webber and served up by Tom Hooper. It could have as easily been an uber-noirish take on a Mr. Hooper episode from Sesame Street. The local hero variety store owner, being crushed by spawn of Satan real estate developers, spends the nights chasing the dragon with his PTSD- afflicted just-back-from-Iraq sidekick Big Bird, and the Pepto Bismol pale mornings retching into Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can. Haven’t seen the trailer yet? Any minute now. (ed. note: No such episode of Sesame Street exists anywhere outside of Stockland’s fevered mind.)
At the very least, we’re guilty of giving a free pass to this kind of cultural plundering for decades. It has occurred primarily, though not exclusively at the low-brow level of the Marvel superhero comic book series. The formula, now metastasizing through all of creative life, is no mystery. Take something original and accomplished according to its own lights. Render it a grotesquely bloated, computer trickery travesty of its former self. Pitch manically. Open the doors and let those paying suckers come on in. Add Roman numerals and repeat.
The process itself is appalling. Even worse is that our blithe acceptance of its spread to the point that we’re now become so blinded to the abomination we forget that the making of art is a serious matter. It isn’t, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, just one of your holiday games. It doesn’t matter if it’s high-brow, low-brow or unibrow.
We can accept art that fails. We should never excuse it being prima facie fraudulent abuse of previous creative work. At a minimum, art must have the integrity to respect the mastery of its antecedents. The real fiasco of Cats, then, is the pattern of duplicity it fulfills, combined with our acquiescence to that swindle.
The movie itself brashly seeks to suck completely dry what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘80s stage version has milked for decades from Eliot's original book. It’s a moot argument now whether Cats the theatrical musical should ever have been produced. For better or worse, it was. No sane cat cries over spilt milk. But what we now seem to have accepted as inevitable was that it would one day spawn a movie version no human eyes should ever see.
It is blessedly true that, given the critical shredding and box office mauling that Cats has suffered since its Christmas release, few human eyes have actually seen it. The night we saw it at our local cineplex, my wife and I were literally the only people there. One of us was there only because the other one of us issued an “or else” option of seeing Little Women instead. Around us was an auditorial void, a 3-D darkling plain descending to Hell’s gate, of bum-absent movie seats. Just before show time, a lone woman entered the theatre, cast her eyes at the Zen of emptiness and fled, doubtless driven by irresistible second thoughts, for the nearest exit.
An optimist would say reactions such as hers probably guarantee there’s no whisker of risking Cats IX any time soon. That might sound like good news but in reality it’s only a form of playing possum. For in addition to his Book of Practical Cats, of course. T.S Eliot wrote The Wasteland. You think the Tom Hoopers of our cinematic crime syndicates aren’t licking their lips to take a stab at bringing that to the big screen? Think about it. For them, it’s home sweet home.