Prepare Yourself: The Cult of ‘Cats’ Is Here
When NBCUniversal conducted its quarterly financial report last week, the news was not good. The company’s film unit announced a “49 percent decline” in profits, and much of the blame could be placed on a single film: Cats, the big-budget adaptation of the popular Broadway musical based on the poems of T.S. Eliot. Against a reported budget of $95 million (before advertising!), Cats has grossed just $26 million in the United States, and another $38 million worldwide. Cats ran on Broadway for nearly 18 years and 7,500 performances. After six weekends in movie theaters, Cats remained on just 133 screens out of the 3,380 it opened on.
Something interesting is happening on some of those 133 screens, though: Sellouts, sing-alongs, and standing ovations. Cats may have been a flop as an Oscar contender, but it’s already the 2020s first great midnight movie — and perhaps one of the most perfect midnight movies ever created.
Last weekend, the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn held its first “rowdy screenings” of Cats. While the Drafthouse staff are typically sticklers for respectful silence at all movies, at “rowdy” screenings, boisterous vocal responses are welcome and encouraged. One staff member told me the first rowdy Cats screening sold out in less than 20 minutes. So they added another screening was added. Then two more. Four screenings, four sellouts.
For freaking Cats.
I was fortunate enough to host the two Friday night screenings. They were a blast. The crowds cheered Steven McRae’s tap-dancing Skimbleshanks, and hissed Idris Elba’s fiendish Macavity. (He’s broken every human law, guys! Every single one of them!) They screamed in abject terror at the bizarre song featuring Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cats, where Rebel Wilson unzips her digital fur suit to reveal a bedazzled digital vest-and-fur combo underneath, and then dances with tiny mice and cockroaches. They sat in hushed reverence for Jennifer Hudson’s emotional rendition of “Memory.” They sang along to “Mr. Mistoffelees” and giggled with obvious glee when, after 100 minutes of cinematic oddities, Judi Dench’s wise Old Deuteronomy concluded the proceedings by looking directly into the camera and earnestly explained that a dog is not a cat. (Thank you for the clarification, Judi Dench.)
When I wrote about Cats last December, I was careful not to review it in any traditional sense. I assigned it no numerical rating; on Twitter, I joked that on a 0-5 scale I would award Cats “an onion.” It defied all commonly-held notions of good and bad. It simply was. Mostly, I marveled at and catalogued its unique and mesmerizing strangeness.
On second viewing, Cats is somehow even weirder than I remembered. Although Universal supposedly released a cut with “improved visual effects” just days into Cats’ theatrical release, I saw no discernible improvement from the version I saw at the press screening. Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy still has her human hands, and the faces of the human-cat hybrids still never look quite right any time the characters are in motion. As weird as the leads look, the background extras are somehow worse; their feet rarely seem to make contact with what must have been CGI cobblestones on the streets of the film’s empty, human-free London.
(If you watch the backgrounds, you’ll also notice that every single poster and street sign in this inexplicable London refers to cats. The theater in the square is playing The Cat and the Canary and the milk bar advertises a truly horrifying concoction called “hot milk soup.” It’s like the Pixar movie Cats, but instead of sentient automobiles, humanity has been replaced by unholy, Lovecraftian hellbeasts.)
Not surprisingly, mainstream audiences rejected Tom Hooper’s Cats faster than I would reject a bowl of hot milk soup. But the same ingredients that made Cats a flop — off-putting special effects, a complete lack of internal logic, Idris Elba magically teleporting himself around while screeching “Meow!” — also comprise a recipe for midnight movie magic. In fact, a look through the definitive book on this subject, Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, reveals one description after another of cult films that also sound like descriptions of Cats, despite the fact that this book was written in 1983.
Hoberman and Rosenbaum write that films “tend to inspire a cult only after they have become devalued or otherwise estranged from mainstream acceptance.” They quote critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who said in his famous essay on Casablanca that cult films “must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.” Eco also insisted that this world “must display some organic imperfections.” Can we all agree that human hands — with rings! — on cats qualify as “organic imperfections”?
Hoberman describes the appeal of The Rocky Horror Picture Show — another outlandish movie musical that bombed with critics and audiences and found an appreciative fanbase at midnight — as its “exaggerated dress-up and out-front sexual display, the experimenting with different identities, the goal of living out a fantasy.” That sums up Taylor Swift’s bizarrely erotic serenade of Elba’s Macavity to a T, right down to her character’s high heels. (Where does a cat even get high heels?)
Midnight Movies finds the origins of late-night moviegoing in different strains of obsessive cinephile fandom dating back to the early 20th century. They compare cultists to the surrealists of the 1920s who “courted disorientation” and watched movies for their “dreamlike latent content that could be precipitated by deranging or bypassing the manifest content of its storyline.” The surrealists would have loved Cats, which provides its own disorientation for the viewer. It basically has no story, so nothing needs to be deranged or bypassed. It’s pure dreamlike insanity.
This also makes Cats a perfect midnight movie from a practical perspective. There’s no dialogue you need to hear in order to understand the plot. There’s no storyline to focus your attention upon. In fact, paying attention to what little story there is would only make Cats’ hunt for the “jellicle choice” less satisfying. That leaves the audience free to bask in the grotesque images, sing along with “Mr. Mistoffelees,” and — as my crowd began to do with great enthusiasm — holler “BIG DEUT!” like a football fan whose star quarterback just scored a touchdown whenever Judi Dench gets a lingering close-up.
Combine all of that with a pace that never relents from its onslaught of Andrew Lloyd Webber ditties and alarming visuals and you have an ideal midnight movie. Perhaps the most fun part of attending these early rowdy Cats screening is the sense that you are actually part of the birth of the cult. By the time I was old enough to attend The Rocky Horror Picture Show, its rules were essentially carved in stone; unbreakable and unchanging. Cats fans are just beginning to create their own rules. (One fun one involves yelling “Tissue!” when poor Jennifer Hudson’s nose is dripping with snot, which it does constantly, even when she’s not singing.)
It could be a while before Cats becomes successful enough as a cult film for Universal to declare a quarterly profit boosted by its late-night theatrical performance. But the energy and enthusiasm at the Drafthouse this weekend has me convinced that eventually, it will get there. As the old ads for the Broadway show proudly declared for years on local New York television, this Cats will also run now and forever.
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