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.
What’s been dropped at the paying public’s shoes is a cinematic blood sample 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, individual and collectively, a little much.
Yet, Cats moves beyond being just a box office bomb and turns into a fun-house-mirror examination of our souls. It forces us to consider honestly our cultural complicity in turning a work by a 20th-century literary genius into $90 million worth of lumpy kitty litter.
It seems we’re 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 who they can get to buy anything so long as they sell it with the right hype.
At 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 is appalling. Even worse is that our blithe acceptance of it has spread to the point that we’ve now become so blinded to the abomination we forget that the making of art is a serious matter.
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 fulfils, combined with our acquiescence to that swindle.
The movie brashly seeks to suck completely dry what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1980s 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. But we now seem to have accepted as inevitable that it would one day spawn a movie version no human eyes should ever see.
It’s 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 issued an “or else” option of seeing Little Women instead.
An optimist would say 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 Waste Land.
You think the Tom Hoopers of the cinematic crime syndicates aren’t licking their lips to take a stab at bringing that to the big screen?
For them, it’s home sweet home.
Peter Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and senior writer at the think-tank Cardus.
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