CATS: Same As It Ever Was… And So Much More

What a silly thing to exist!

Perhaps those six words best sum it all up best. Because there’s no other way to react to the fact that Tom Hooper’s CATS is currently confounding critics and audiences alike. For it is absurd, garish, unintentionally hilarious, sometimes terrifying, sometimes infectious, way-too-horny, and yet oddly rousing bit of empty spectacle that leaves us to ask, “What? How?! Why!?!?!?” And while you may be hoping there is some purposeful answer to these questions, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The truth is that CATS has always defied logic, taste, and maybe even basic decency. 

And it all begins with one man…

1. What’s Past is Purrlogue

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is the goofy, ostentatious elder statesman of musical theater. A dude who feels like he is one setting down on the Liberace meter, while also doubling as a stuffed shirt Tory who could fit right in playing an annoyed neighbor in a Beastie Boys video. It makes for an odd combination, but it wasn’t always that way. On his way up, Webber and his lyricist partner Tim Rice were the boundary-pushing, pop-canatta-crafting wunderkinds who smashed genres and styles into (sometimes) transcendent results. After all, Jesus Christ Superstar remains one of the all-time great musicals; an early 70’s fever dream that reinterprets the most religious Christian story on the planet into some flower-child, new-age cult fanfare. The fact that it does while somehow also being faithful / not-too blasphemous is a damn coup (though like most religious depictions, it was met with resistance).

I have a particular soft spot for the 1973 film version by Norman Jewison, largely because it was shot by the great Douglas Slocombe, whose other credits include stone cold classics like The Servant, The Lion in Winter, The Italian Job (1969), and a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark (he also shot Temple and Crusade). Together, they brought us a surreal Jesus Christ Superstar that was steeped in vivid, realistic landscapes, along with 70’s grit and Altman-esque zooms. Its achingly sincere tone highlights the best of Webber and Rice’s aching sincerity can achieve (and shhhhhhh you can watch it all on youtube if you don’t mind Polish subtitles ). But after the two split, Webber turned to some highfalutin inspiration in one T.S. Eliot. Too bad the source he picked was actually, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” which is 1) some silly children’s fare and 2) a title that is an outright allusion to blackface racism (really). But what might make the decision make a little more sense is that Webber had been secretly writing songs based on the stories since he was 15 years old.

Now, if it seems weird that Webber would base a musical around a loose collection of playful cat stories for children, don’t worry, it is weird. Especially because the content of the lyrics themselves are completely bonkers. For the stage show, Webber tried to find a way to loosely turn them into a whole story, but he didn’t really do it at all. In fact, my favorite description of the plot of comes from @LouisPeitzman “Please stop saying the plot of Cats is confusing. The plot of Cats is that they're cats and they introduce themselves until one of them gets permission to die.” This is startlingly accurate. Which just means that Webber, a man who previously stumbled into the glorious cheese, but could always find some moving pathos within his story, was suddenly was thrusting himself into full-blown weird. Honestly, he didn’t really care (which might be putting it lightly, as at this point in his career there was allegedly a lot of drinking, other stuff, etc). But who knows, maybe he was just tickled by the idea and felt it would be a fun lark that made good on a book he loved as a child. Either way, when it arrived on the stage, both British and American critics couldn’t make heads or tails of the empty, inscrutable stage show before them. It should have, by all accounts, be a trash fire and a huge blow to his career. 

Then it made 3.5 billion in the theater. 

Yes, you read that correctly. CATS was one of the longest running, and arguably most successful stage show in history. The same questions abound, “What? How?! Why!?!?!?” But like most phenomena, there’s a lot of reasons behind it. The fact it was a technical marvel with fascinating stage mechanics. While it wasn’t really a musical for musical lovers, it was a still well-performing tourist show. Maybe there was the basic curiosity factor. But it actually inspired swarths of cat lovers, mostly young girls, to flock to the show with earnest desire to take in the spectacle. And they loved it unironically, as many kids do. The adage, “how many seventh graders auditioned for their plays by singing “memory” is practically a meme. Hell, it’s even a plot point in Funny People.

But make no mistake! Despite it’s success, CATS was still “very bad, actually.” To the point that both the show and its confounding success became a routine punchline. Growing up, I remember every single late night talk show host taking pot shots with frequency. Because it just always got a laugh. And as the show’s success went on and on, it morphed Broadway for the worse in many ways. Like Jaws and Star Wars in the film industry, it inspired a move toward blockbusterism and soon Disney came knocking with stage show adaptations of Beauty & The Beast and The Lion King, etc. All because CATS had become an undeniable entity unto itself. 

While the show’s first run finally ended in the year 2000, after a total of 18 years and 7,485 performances, it’s legacy was already living on in touring shows. But even then, I’m not sure how many young people remember how much it was a runaway phenomenon. How much it was an innate part of the cultural lexicon. I’m left to wonder, had we lost our memory of it? Are those who remember it all smiling alone? But in in the lamplight, the withered leaves collect at my feet, the wind begins to moan, and soon the whispers spoke to us in prophecy…

“Hello. My name is Tom Hooper and I’m going to direct CATS.”

2. Enter the Fussy Boy

I’ve made my feelings on Tom Hooper quite clear by this point. In short, I’ve always found his work to be deeply misguided. Sure, he’s found some good scripts, but he has constantly thrown the principles of cinematic language to the wind to indulge in a series of stylistic flourishes that could maybe be fun if they didn’t come at the most inopportune and confusing times. I’d be more kind about it in other circumstances, but the man’s 1) notoriously prickly and egocentric and 2) seemingly solid enough with actors I guess that he’s managed to fail upward? The fact he won an Oscar for misapplying Stanley Kubrick’s center-focus style in The King’s Speech is hilarious. The fact it came during Fincher’s Social Network year is even more so. And the fact that all this happened and neither Kubrick, nor Fincher have an Oscar probably tells you a lot about the Academy.

But it was Hooper’s Les Miserables that sent me to my breaking point. Largely because of the way he made so many false assumptions about his given choices and their intended effect. “Having a character stare directly into the camera makes it feel intimate!” he would argue. No, actually it unnerves the audience. “We’ll use live recording to make it feel organic!” he’d shout. No, unless you are purposefully trying to codify the moment in the movie as a “live performance,” that actually just makes it feel hollow and awkward. His work is nothing but false assumptions like this and they are the backbone of hubris. But somehow, I was never worried about the acclaim because time always wins. Eventually, the hubristic artist in question will make choices that show off the depth of their false assumptions.

Eventually, Tom Hooper will make a decision to do CATS.

To be clear, I am not a big ironic movie watcher. I find the mantra of “so bad it’s good,” to be a hopelessly reductive way of trying to explain something rather complicated. For that, I’d rather direct you to Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp” (something that I’ll actually be discussing in another essay coming out soon). But for me, it usually takes a very special set of circumstances to get in the camp mood, like the aforementioned exhibition of hubris, combined with an earnest, non-toxic nature of the product, along with my own genuine affinity for the material. And oh boy did the idea of Tom Hooper’s CATS fit that particular bill. 

Given everything I have just said about the stage show and its pairing with this director, suddenly everything made me feel giddy. My friend Andrew began to talk about it feverishly. He knew the disaster before us more acutely than anyone. He just knew. And over the last few years there has probably been no topic we have talked about more. From every casting announcement, to every morsel of news, we all sat waiting. But so much seemed concealed from public view. Even the production photos didn’t make sense. Where were the costumes? How are they doing this? What will the effects look like? What will the running time be? Would Growltiger’s Last Stand get taken out? (Of course it would, it’s deeply racist). 

Then… the trailer dropped. And it was something that might go down as the one day in twitter history where everyone stopped fighting to unite, much like the Christmas Truce of World War I. For it was the day that all the bullshit of the world stopped and we could just all have fun staring at this bewildering, bewitching monstrosity before us. And while the trailer was reason for most to decide they never, ever want to pay money to see it (understandably so), the rest of us began counting down the days, seeking out behind the scenes stories that would fly fast and furious as rumor and news seeped in. And then finally, just in time for Christmas, the train wreck was here…

Reader, it was one of the most amazing theater experiences of my life. 

I mean this sincerely. For starters, there were dozens and dozens of people dressed up like cats. Yes, they were musical fans, but they knew exactly what they were about to get, because even the most devoted CATS fan knows it is a silly thing. But even my group of friends was a perfect collection to take it in with. I was sitting with 1) someone who knew WAY too much about the history of the show and could sing along to every word. 2) someone who was an editor that could spot every hilarious technical hiccup immediately. And 3) someone who literally knew nothing about the show and could only watch in confused horror. My god, there is no better range of people to enjoy with. And the crowd itself was rowdy as hell, but there was that perfect balance of theater-going etiquette where the rowdiness is being directed at the movie itself and not the audience’s own conversation. 

Collectively, we watched on with a mix of nervous tittering, terrified exasperation, unintended laughs, and yes, the sing-along moments of grandeur. This movie is one of the purest of things. It could only be an impossible trash fire thanks to the wonky special effects that should have never been (we’ll get to that in a second). But when they were coupled with a bevy of earnest performances and Hooper’s trademark awkward cinematography, it all resulted in 21 of the 25 funniest shots of the year. Doubt me? WATCH ME LIST THEM. 

1. The shot where Judi Dench emerges from the thick fog in her giant coat looking like a fucking demokun.

2. The first appearance of Idris sans coat. All the cats are naked but how does he look MORE NAKED.

3. The first reveal of Munkustrap’s face (the exposition cat) in which we promptly realize the digital fur technology is just not going to match and this will all be haunting.

4. The terrifying cut in to the close-up of the mice (WHO ARE PLAYED BY CHILDREN)

5. The shot of Victoria eagerly holding a knife and fork like a madwoman.

6. Skimbleshanks emerging in his hot, hot red pants and suspenders, which is the most codified gay moment of the movie and I am here for it.

7. When it looks like Jason Derulo is about to totally start sucking that foot.

8. The shot where settles on Victoria, Rumpleteezer, and Mungojerrie crashing into bed with smug satisfaction, as if they are ready for a threesome or just had one.

9. The actual implied threesome in the trash can.

10. The insane, random smash cut to Derulo belting his note out in the milk bar.

11. Unnamed extra diving under the milk spout to pour / slurp it into her mouth.

12. The first awkward “cat jump” onto the car.

13. Jason Derulo’s facial expression post Mistoffelees’ magic failure (this shouldn’t count because it’s an actual intentional laugh)

14. The cut to Ian McKellen lapping up milk in the saucer (this also shouldn’t count because his entire performance is intentional and he’s the only one who knows he’s in CATS)

15. The super awkward lingering “are they going to fucking kiss!?!?” shots with Mistoffelees and Victoria after they close the door on the dog.

16. There’s another great impossibly long linger with Mistoffelees after his magic failure and it takes them SO LONG to get to Judi Dench’s reveal. The audience cackled so hard.

17. The *BOI-OI-OING* tail boners (somehow the hornist shot in the movie).

18. The cut to wide of them of the tiny human cats dancing on the railway tracks (meanwhile the pan right reveal of Big Ben is GOOD, actually)

19. Jennifer Hudson awkwardly getting on her hands and knees to crawl away.

20. Every single shot of the cockroaches.

21. Virtually every single part of the last scene. From the odd medium shot where Judi Dench awkwardly turns and breaks the fourth wall. To the over the shoulder shot Munkustrap’s creepy intense face as Judi’s talking about food. To the fact it JUST KEEPS GOING. To the point my friend Jamie had a breakdown laughing as it she just kept singing another verse. To the fact that scene should have never even been in the first place. For where a talk-to-the-audience coda kind of makes sense on stage, it is just so dreadfully un-cinematic and unnecessary to this story. But they had to tell us that cats aren’t dogs, I guess? And if that weren’t enough it then gives us the perfect cut to the Grizabella balloon (which is still close to them I guess?) before it disappears in to clouds. END MOVIE. BRAVO. STANDING OVATION.

And this is just what I remember.

But it’s all the result of hubris upon hubris upon hubris. Here’s what apparently happened: Without getting into a nitty gritty discussion about VFX and the use of motion capture versus animation, just know that Hooper went into production making a massive amount of brazen mistakes. Starting with the decision to use real sets and film actors in full performance without the use of motion capture. It’s as if he thought computers were magic and could animate over all of it without problem, as he was far too worried that motion capture would just get in the way of performance. Again, it’s assumptive thinking that hurts you on the other side of production. 

Because the VFX team not only had to paint out the entirety of what was filmed (a beyond tedious rotoscoping process that eats up man hours), but without their real movements being tracked, everything had to be essentially animated OVER what was painted out. This process is basically the biggest fuck you in the world to your VFX team (not to mention there was apparently a tragic lack of tracking markers being used). But more importantly, these choices damn everything from the start. Maybe it was theoretically possible to make people’s cat-like appearance not look like a nightmare (I doubt it), but “digital fur technology” was impossible thanks to this approach. It would take an unlimited budget and time-frame to get anything even semi-functional, one which was already damaged by the brazen, border-line contemptible approach to filming. But the end result?

Some of the most bizarre looking imagery you’ve ever seen. It’s all floating heads over bodies that can’t possibly be right. To correct, it always has to look either too-human, or too cat. Either way, it’s all wrong. Just minutes into the movie, someone asked, “Why do they look like people!? I don’t like that they look like people!” But maybe the design’s ugly unnaturalness just added more gaudy fuel the fire. Because it seems like they just decided to EMBRACE THE ABSURDITY. The end designs are… they’re… well, they’re just jaw dropping. My friend Spence even replied, “I swear I saw one or two buttholes… just a smittering.” But what I ultimately love about these dumbfounding choices is the fact that they allow Cats to do something that I would have have thought impossible… It was allowed to evolve

Make no mistake, the movie is not a bastardization of the original musical. In a weird way, this choice allows it to evoke the same “WTF” sensibility on audience that the theater community felt during its debut in 1981. Sure, they could have put some clothes and make-up on everyone and called it a day, but that would have just retread what we already knew, likely retreading the style of the 1998 live-taped stage version. But instead we’ve been given this disturbing gift of a pokemon-like evolution. And in a weird way, the only way to make a new Cats feel like the effect of the old CATS was to bring it into a new absurd reality.

The only question is, “what do we do with it?”

3. No Good Answers

A lot of people have been noting that Cats has seemed to inspire a whole lot of amazing film criticism. Some of which bends toward the hilarious (my mom literally called me to laugh at Ty Burr’s review). But I think this goes far beyond the mere instinct of a critic to indulge in their punchy comic sides. The reason CATS is inspiring so much fervent thought is because the entire movie so directly spits in the face of criticism’s core goal. For criticism is always about answering the essential question, “why?” As in, “why this cut? Why this move? Why this creative choice?” And the answer for any aspect of CATS always lies in a lark. From its very inception with T.S. Eliot, it was a poorly thought out, whimsical goof. One that has somehow, someway managed to echo throughout history into a musical. And now it’s turned into a garish movie. So what is it all really about?

It’s about cats.

It may sound reductive but that’s it. I could really try and dig into the thematic landscape of this film and throw theories of how the phrase “what a silly thing to exist!” doubles as a plight for the existential crisis of the characters, but that’s only barely true on a semiotic level. We can do all the research of the history we want, or find weird allusions, but ultimately they’re going to spin apart and dissolve like an ever-evolving fractal. It’s just Cats all the way down. Meaning it’s genuinely, truly, absolutely one of the few rare cases where the people responsible weren’t really thinking that hard and didn’t care if they were being contradictory. And unlike so many narratives that rely on rigorous dramatic execution, it doesn’t really matter here because the structure of the thing doesn’t really rely on those to exist.

Yup! It’s just about cats.

To the point that Andrew Lloyd Webber has outright said this and I don’t think he’s doing one of those David Lynch things where he’s just playing coy. Which means that now, Tom Hooper’s CATS is as it ever was, but so much more. A 100 million dollar evolution of that lark that may be a stain on some people’s careers, but really shouldn’t. Because it’s Cats. It’s a glorious, lovely, earnest stain in and of itself, like an aberration in history that keeps giving. And more importantly, I always love the result. Yes, I know this musical and the movie is “bad,” but that’s not what matters. Whether good, bad, good bad, or bad good, it all goes out the window. What matters is that I like what it is. And whether I’m genuinely enjoying it or experiencing some vague form of Stockholm syndrome doesn’t actually matter (nor do I care much for the difference). Joy is joy. So much so that I went to see it again less than 48 hours later and had just as good a time (I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie twice during opening weekend). And I’ll go see it again this week. I like it more and more as it sticks in my brain because yes, you essentially have to memorize Cats to like Cats, but that’s the whole thing… It only makes sense unto itself.

Because you better BELIEVE it’s just about cats. 

Which is exactly why I think Cats is “important, actually.” We live in such a sanitized age of moviegoing where even the most broken Hollywood narratives still evoke cash-grab cynicism or conventional heteronormative bullshit, but here… here we’re just left speechless, maybe even a little humbled by this film’s sheer audacity and willingness to fail. But there’s no reason to look into the lark and try and parse it out for our own sanity. Movies are so powerful that we always feel we have to take them seriously. But like the titular cats in this story, we only need to marvel at the absurdity of what lies around us.

What a silly thing to exist!

And I’m so happy it does.

<3 HULK

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