There’s something spectacular about failure. Of course, it’s no surprise that I think that. As most of you faithful Filthy Dreams readers know, I have a soft spot for failure, from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ atrocious album Nocturama, David Bowie’s unbearable pirate song “Red Sails” to Tennessee Williams’ putrid paintings. Even our blessed mother Lana Del Rey has some eye-poppingly awful performances, particularly early in her career, like her caterwauled version of “Million Dollar Man,” which makes me shiver with delight (“One for the money….whoawhoawhoawhoaaaa. Two for the show!”). Lana clearly knew in that moment that if you’re not going to be good, you better be shockingly bad. And it’s a specific type of failure that contains this resistant power–not failure due to lack of trying, but failure for putting your all into something against common sense, reason and rationality.
But, if there’s something spectacular about failure, then there’s something transcendent–sublime even–about spectacular failure. This is all to say, I love Cats. Yes, Cats, Tom Hooper’s much-maligned, monstrous, nightmarish box office stink-bomb, loathed by critics and audiences alike. Not only do I adore the film, which is certainly Hooper’s best in comparison to coma-inducing bores like Les Miserables or even worse, The Danish Girl, I’ll go so far as to admit it’s my favorite film in recent memory (my cherished female rage, matriarchal murder cult movie Midsommar notwithstanding). I worship it. I revere it. I stan it because JELLICLES CAN AND JELLICLES DO!!! JELLICLES CAN AND JELLICLES DO!! JELLICLE SONGS FOR JELLICLE CATS!!! JELLICLE SONGS FOR JELLICLE CATS!!! JELLICLE SONGS FOR JELLICLE CATS!!!
Phew, ok…I’m back.
While Cats certainly is not an objectively “good” film, it is, however, awe-inspiringly, ecstatically, almost orgasmically bad. So bad that I understand it as a shining testament to terrible ideas, baffling interpretations and downright batshit decision-making. They say two wrongs don’t make a right, but countless wrong choices certainly do make a cinematic abomination worthy of every award. It’s everything I ever wanted in a film. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
In fact, I’d wager that Cats will in no time become a cult classic, right up there with other beacons of misguided choices like The Room and Showgirls. As Quentin Crisp famously quipped, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.” And for Cats, the producers should just embrace its midnight movie potential. In the theater I attended, there were already viewers smuggling in flasks of booze to tailgate the Hollywood atrocity. That’s always a good sign.
Now I know what you’re thinking: But, Emily, every other critic hates the film with a flaming passion. What about the lowly 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? (a number certainly more worthy of Martin Scorsese’s torturous uncanny valley Polar Express-esque slog The Irishman. At least the lady cats got to speak in Cats). I know, I know. As always, I’m one of the only ones willing to demean myself, similar to the actors, and admit just how incredible I found the film when nearly every other critic has gleefully ripped it apart from reel to reel, comparing its horrors to The Human Centipede and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. And I get it, it’s fun to write bad reviews. But, lighten up! What did Mr. Mistoffelees ever do to YOU?!
Unlike these uptight critics, Cats is an all-in, stunning monument to lunacy that was admittedly set up to fail from the beginning, despite Tom Hooper’s apparent belief that he was sitting on an Oscar-worthy goldmine. Had he ever SEEN the musical, an unneeded, unnecessary interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s sappy and saccharine poetry book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? As an aside: how mad must poor T.S. be from beyond the grave knowing that of all his life’s work, mind-boggling names like Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger and Munkustrap, which sound more like Merry Pranksters on the bus with Ken Kesey, are his enduring legacy?
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was transformed into a 1980s fever dream/coke-addled stage production by musical theatrical terrorist Andrew Lloyd Weber. What is the musical about? I’m so glad you asked. It’s about practical cats, dramatical cats, pragmatical cats, fanatical cats, oratorical cats, Delphic-oracle cats, skeptical cats, dispeptical cats…okay I’ll stop. In reality, Andrew Lloyd Weber turned these series of poems into a meandering hallucination, full of rubbing, grinding, and purring, centered around, what I can only describe as a cat sacrificial ritual.
In the play, the Jellicle Cats, which I can only assume is the name of their cult, have a yearly ritual ball, which is, in the film, set on top of a pentagram painted on the floor. In this ball, each cat sings their sob story in order for one cat to be chosen by their ancient cat leader Old Deuteronomy. This chosen one then gets shot up into the stratosphere, I mean, the “Heavyside Layer” where they get to have another one of their nine lives. The only catch is that the Heavyside Layer is just a part of the atmosphere where these doomed kitties probably suffocate to death. Where are all these reincarnated cats, hmmmmm? It’s dark as fuck! Not to mention sad ragged Grizabella, the crooner of the only song worth remembering from the musical, “Memories,” who gets cast out and hissed at by a bunch of bitchy cats because she’s a slut. So Hooper and the cast of Cats were already starting at a loss, despite the astounding success of the musical, which was so popular in its day that it inspired these distressing PSA’s:
And yet, the film and everyone involved collectively surpassed the already skulking ridiculousness of the musical to create something I can only describe as magnificent. No small part of this was due to the cast itself, made up of some highly-respected career actors who appeared entirely willing to debase themselves for their roles or at the very least, had no idea how godawful this movie would become. This includes Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Idris Elba and perhaps most hilariously Ray Winstone who plays the malevolent sea captain Growltiger. Sadly, Nick Cave, who has worked with Winstone in his film The Proposition, as well as the music video for “Jubilee Street” and his pseudo-bio-doc 20,000 Days on Earth, hasn’t yet answered my question to The Red Hand Files on his opinions on that peculiar career decision. I await my response, Nick…
Much of the howling from critics about the film concerns the disturbing CGI-rendered physicality of the cats themselves, or should I say, cat humanoids since they exist somewhere between. And don’t get me wrong, their appearance is unquestionably shocking. When I first saw Idris Elba onscreen as the villainous cat Macavity (who apparently has the power to disappear into a puff of smoke with just a phrase like “Meow!” or “Macavity!” which is how I’m leaving parties from now on), particularly with his vividly vibrant snake-like colored contacts, I thought I was going to have to flee the theater because I couldn’t stop laughing. He strikingly resembled Mac as Nightman in Charlie’s musical The Nightman Cometh from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And this was even before I caught a glimpse of his cat abs. That’s right–the man who played Stringer Bell in one of the best television shows of all time, The Wire, has cat abs.
The Observer asserted, “many of its uncanny images are sure to haunt viewers for generations.” They’re not wrong. The physical form of the cats is a special sort of body horror: moving ears, whiskers and tails juxtaposed with human faces, hands and feet. Sometimes the cats even wear shoes, such as the breakdancing cats at the Jellicle Ball. Where did they get their Converse? This Frankenstein of cat-human hybrids is made even more striking by the version that was screened in my theater, which was the original sent to theaters without Tom Hooper’s procrastinating “fix.” This meant none of the cat-people’s hands were integrated into their cat bodies. Nobody bothered to cover up Judi Dench’s wedding ring, sticking out of her Cowardly Lion cat-skin fur coat.
While the CGI aesthetic did nobody any favors, it certainly did a few actors dirtier than others. In particular, Jennifer Hudson, as Grizabella, belts out the film’s emotional climax with CGI snot running down her face while looking like a werewolf. I was crying with her, yes, but not out of sorrow. However, at least Hudson wasn’t put into white-face like the lead character Victoria, played by Francesca Hayward. Now, sure, Victoria is known, even in the musical, as “the white cat,” but you’d think things could be switched up a bit when casting a woman of color. Awkward.
At times, the Cats aesthetic transforms into pure unadulterated horror, in particular during the moment in which Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) UNZIPS her skin(!), revealing another rhinestone-encrusted cat body sporting a jumpsuit emblazoned with musical notes. Look. At that point I worried that someone dosed my Diet Coke. And this was even before she ate a human-cockroach. She also croons into a random tail (not her own as she does in a later scene) like a microphone and yanks it, tossing it aside. Did she just sing into a dismembered body part?! Is she the Jeffrey Dahmer of cats?
Beyond the sheer bizarreness of their feline bodies, nobody involved with the film seems secure in their knowledge of the size of a cat. Their scale changes in nearly each scene. In one scene, Victoria, with those notorious couple of cats Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, wears a ring as a bracelet. In another, the cats cavort over railroad tracks as if they are the minuscule size of the width of the wooden slats. And yet in others, they seem to be closer to the more rational size of a cat standing on its hind legs. This cats confusion just lends itself to the mind-bending, brain-searing, anxiety attack-inducing surreality of the film. However, glancing at this anti-smoking PSA, it appears that nobody involved with Cats’ theatrical production ever really settled on the scale of a cat either:
And I know what you’re thinking: With a production that was on Broadway for such a long run, at least the music was good? Oh you poor thing. The songs consist of lunatic earworms destined to drive you into a complete state of madness that you’ll eventually just give yourself over to “the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity.” I mean, just try to get “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” (“The cat of the railway traiiiiiin”) out of your head, or Skimbleshanks tap-dancing while dressed as a leather daddy. It’s thrillingly excruciating. Or try to avoid humming “The Ad-dressing of the Cats” while conceptualizing the philosophical moment when the whole chorus belts out “A cat is not a dog!” Inspiring…
By the end of the film, you are so worn down by the manic musical cheer that you become indoctrinated, like a feline form of Stockholm Syndrome. Forget trying to make sense of anything; just let it wash over you. Welcome it like a psychotic break. Suddenly you’ll find yourself asking, “How can I become a Jellicle Cat?” rather than, “What the fuck is a Jellicle Cat?” And how can I get to the Heavyside Layer?
Now, even with the film’s garish aesthetics, which extends to the neon-drenched dystopian hellscape setting, the best part of Cats is that every move, every decision seems to have been made with complete undeterred and unwavering confidence. This includes Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theater Cat lifting his head to proclaim, “MEOW MEOW MEOOOOWW!!!” and later furiously licking from a bowl of milk in a closet, as well as copious scenes of characters rubbing on each other’s faces (imagine rubbing Judi Dench’s face?). Everyone involved with this film’s production threw themselves wholeheartedly into this stinker without self-consciousness or the apparent knowledge of its fate as a dud. It’s a swan dive into trash. Sometimes literally, since there is an entire song dedicated to eating trash courtesy of Bustopher Jones (James Corden). And yes, the cats really do roll around in the garbage, rabidly munching on discarded food bits. It’s the most moving ode to dumpster-diving since Charles Manson’s “Garbage Dump.”
Even Taylor Swift, whose perfectionism and solid type A personality usually prevents her from making such enjoyable missteps, is a welcome vision in the film as Macavity’s supporter Bombalunira. Bombalurina descends from the ceiling sprinkling catnip on all the Jellicles, lying on a giant moon as if she’s riding the Studio 54 lunar coke-spoon, while crooning about “Macavity the mystery cat” in a British accent so terrible that Madonna would be envious. Oh girl.
And while all of this might sound awful, rest assured, it’s not, despite the assertions of the critics. While the bad reviews might have points about the general outlandishness of the film, the worst offense in my mind comes from the critics who seem to think Cats is *gasp* boring. For example, The LA Times writes, “For the most part, Cats is both a horror and an endurance test, a dispatch from some neon-drenched netherworld where the ghastly is inextricable from the tedious.” Similarly, Jacobin Mag said, “…nobody warned me that all the garish lighting, pointless camera movement, and bland furry erotica can’t keep the boredom at bay. It’s so excruciating, I fell asleep twice.” If you think Cats is boring, you shouldn’t be a critic or you should be forced to watch until you understand the true magnitude of its genius.
Cats is ridiculous, joyful, hilarious, transcendent. While it wasn’t made specifically for camp enjoyment, it’s naïve camp in its purest state. It doesn’t matter if it was purposeful or not. The fact that it was meant to be a box office smash and instead, made people want to get smashed makes it even better.
And, I’d argue, it might be even a little anarchical. I mean, you don’t lose around $70 million without a little anarchy. You want gleeful anarchy, John Waters? Forget that self-serious slog Joker and head to Cats. Why? Because failure can be just so destabilizing and subversive, can’t it. As Jack Halberstam writes in The Queer Art of Failure, “failure preserves some of the wonderous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposed boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.”
Now, contemporary life, under Trump rather than during the Obama administration when Halberstam penned the book, certainly seems more than a little less toxically positive (the dismantlement of democracy brings everyone down). But, there is still an unending drive for success at any cost, especially in Hollywood and even more so with big budget films. At a time when cinemas are filled with mostly pablum that is simply dull rather than remarkable in any way, good or bad, it’s a welcome relief when someone makes a true unabashed trash triumph full of errors, missteps and mistakes. And particularly when it seems that everything has been screen-tested, primed and prepared with the correct PR push, social media strategy and media blitz for its distinct, targeted audience, it’s wonderful when a film seems to appeal to absolutely no one.
Or at least, almost no one. In The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave writes about his self-admittedly failed album Nocturama: “You don’t create something as problematic as Nocturama without a certain risk and a little courage and the temerity to fail. I love this troubled record for that. It may just be my favourite.”
And Cats is mine.