“What deity in the realms of dementia, what rabid god decocted out of the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keeping place for souls so poor as is this flesh. This mawky worm-bent tabernacle.”— Suttree, Cormac McCarthy
Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones / In fact he’s remarkably fat / He doesn’t haunt pubs / He has eight or nine clubs / For he’s the St. James Street Cat!“CATS (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019)
During the first month of social distancing related to COVID-19, I started reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, a novel that has tempted me for almost a decade. It tells the tale of a rich boy in Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1951 whose painful past led him to turn away from family and live in a houseboat among squatters and the poor. It is certainly McCarthy’s longest and most sprawling novel, more empathetic than his others but equally dark, contemplative and verbose. Suttree’s journeys defile the body and, in fact, defilement seems to be a running theme. Defilement of bodies, of dignity, of … melons. Of social standing. Of the spirit.
So when I first booted up Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper’s CATS, the “live-action” adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-breaking musical about a group of cats waxing poetic about life and death, I found myself contemplating Suttree and his ruminations. Hooper inadvertently explores similar themes of anatomical pollution and spiritual decay. Unlike McCarthy’s purple prose, Hooper enlisted computer-generated imagery to turn his all-star cast of singers and dancers into furry cat-people.
What rabid god?
Fans of the musical may enjoy it. I’m not sure. The story is formless, a collection of song and dance numbers of occasional delight. “The Rum Tum Tugger,” “Memory” and “Beautiful Ghosts” (a new song written for the movie by Webber and co-star Taylor Swift) are nice. The ballet by Francesca Hayward as Victoria, the White Cat, is good. Aimlessness is baked into Webber’s original play. Its extended run and success owes greatly to its accessibility by casual audiences.
Perhaps the film would have lived a different life had it been a more straightforward cinematic adaptation of the musical, enlisting costumes and sets rather than CGI to transform its cast. Ah, well. The results are at once nauseating and evocative. Each character has a human face, but some have seemingly mismatched heads. Their bodies — hips, busts, hands, ankles, shoulders — are human in proportion but smooth, like dancers wearing bodysuits.
Modular scale only adds to the visual unreality of Hooper’s world. Against the backdrops of London, they are uncannily small, or bizarrely large, for supposed felines. “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” features our pals dancing in a straight line on a single rail, clearly smaller than any cat you’d find eating refuse from a train station’s garbage pail. They transition into the cab of a train, where they are suddenly large enough to interact with their surroundings. Ocular disorientation is an aesthetic choice many filmmakers attempt but few achieve so thoroughly as Hooper does here. He should be commended for it.
Characters speak only in gibberish, words of the sort we’re all more familiar with having now spent weeks on end cooped up with our pets. Jellicle; Grizabella; Rum Tum Tugger. Gibberish. Meaningless words. McCarthy’s novels — if I may bring them up again — are monuments to the English language. They are thesauruses in their own right. CATS belies the pretension that verbiage is more than class-related linguistic hubris. Speak in sounds. Speak in feelings. The words don’t matter; only the experience does.
In that sense, CATS brings to mind the Netflix documentary Tiger King, whose recent success has catapulted notoriously racist animal abuser Joe Exotic to the national spotlight; Exotic’s 22-year sentence for legitimate crimes was recently pitched to Donald Trump as a potential pardon. Exotic is a fucking moron. His foe, Carol Baskin, is not, but she has become a cultural villain. So. The point is that Tiger King, despite being a documentary that relies largely on the exploitation of cruel personalities in a way that isn’t quite clever enough to makes its final point salient, is still a look at how men and women use animals to arouse audiences and garner attention. It doesn’t matter how much we hate these amateur zookeepers; they know what keeps our attention.
Truly that seems to be Hooper’s game here. The hope was to have CATS feature lifelike anthropomorphic animals that would look beautiful and arousing, if it worked. The online community’s clamor for the “butthole cut” sounds like they’re interested in more explicit tomfoolery but speaks to a salient frustration in an audience seeking arousal but finding bewilderment. Hooper was unable to mix the human and the inhuman. He could not bridge the sacred with the profane. His Dr. Moreau-like creatures simply do not fit the bill.
But there will never be another movie quite like CATS. Its stumbles are unforgettable. It’s often said that nobody who tries to make a masterpiece will ever achieve it; “trying” is inherently limiting to the imagination and willingness to take risks. Few projects take so many unnecessary and costly risks as this. Hooper’s CATS is an inadvertent totem to the immutable potency of the human body on the screen. We can, like Suttree, wax poetically about the tragedy of our crude and fragile forms in the face of decay, but films like these remind us of the sheer power of the human form.
CATS is a negative transposition that proves the positive, the anti-life that draws into relief everything aesthetic that we seek as a species. Its wants us to want to fuck the CATS, but nobody wants to fuck the CATS. We all know why — an unspoken cultural frustration. A universal experience in pent-up arousal thirsting for an outlet. It is truly fascinating, a masterpiece of failure that will last the lifetime of cinema.
What an achievement.