Reputedly, Bill Finger asked repeatedly why a giant purple cat was flying through the window until Kane agreed that a bat made more sense. Only after a further series of attempts with first a baseball bat, then a cricket bat, that a compromise was reached with a flying mammal bat, which had already been drawn into the third panel.
[Camestros Felapton] Welcome everybody to another edition of our very occasional audio-free podcast. Felapton Towers, pioneers of podcasts that skip the whole audio phase entirely and jumps straight to transcript!
Tonight we are going to do a deep, deep dive into the 2019 movie version of long-running stage musical extravaganza CATS!
Now, musical theatre really isn’t my thing so I’ve brought along two special guests to provide some expert insights. Firstly Susan the Triceratops. Susan is a leading expert in non-human narrative structures and having once lived upstairs from Carole King is also the nearest thing we have to an expert in music. Hi Susan!
[Susan] Hello, twenty-first century! Do you need another bandage on your head Cam?
[Camestros] I think I have most of the lacerations covered now thanks. My second guest brings a unique and vital perspective with them. It is the one, the only, Timothy the Talking Cat himself! Who better to discuss a film dedicated to anthropomorphised dancing cats!
[Timothy] Hi and once again, apologies for the claws marks.
[Camestros] So let’s start. [in recitative] Did you find this film weird?
[Timothy] Did it give us the frights?
[Susan] Did it run far too long?
[Camestros] Did the cast all wear tights?
[Timothy] Was it bad C-G-I?
[Susan] Was it moving and sad?
[Camestros] Was it ineffably awful and indescribably bad?
[Susan] (take it away Timothy!)
[Timothy -sings] Because the movie of Cats is and the movie is not,
It’s like the movie of Cats can and the movie can not,
It’s not the movie of Cats is but also its not,
While this movie of Cats should and really should not,
And its because the movie of Cats is bad and bad it is not.
[Camestros] Can we agree that is our last musical number of the night?
[Timothy] I sang!
[Camestros] I don’t know where to start. I should say that I have never had the slightest urge to see Cats as a theatre production. Film media aside, is this very different from the stage show because if not, that is one very strange show. Susan, you’ve seen the original?
[Susan] I’ve seen the original show and helped produce a revival by the Fungus Town amateur dramatic society in the far future. Cats is one of the few surviving cultural artefacts of human civilisation.
[Camestros] That itself is distrubing. So are there many differences?
[Susan] Not really, once you put aside the shift in media. The biggest change is making Victoria the central character, giving a clearer storyline and narrative arc. To further establish a story, Macavity is also given a bigger role as a primary antagonist and also magical powers.
[Camestros] It was a lot more SFF than I expected a talking cat movie to be, I have to say but I’ll get back to genre in a moment. Overall, better or worse than the stage show?
[Susan] The narrative improvements are probably good for human audiences. The big advantage of the stage show is that is a piece of DANCE theatre. There is a lot of dancing in the film but it does not come across as well.
[Camestros] I was going to say that I thought it fails as a dance movie.
[Timothy] No you weren’t. Have you ever even watched a dance movie?
[Camestros] I watched West Side Story once.
[Timothy] While drunk…
[Camestros] I’ll concede that I approached this film as if from the bottom of a vast well of ignorance on the subject of dance related cinema. But how about you Timothy? Overall impressions.
[Timothy] Well, my main emotional reaction was deep existential dread.
[Camestros] Hence clinging to my head with all paws while howling “I don’t want to die!” over and over.
[Timothy] Unlike some people, I am comfortable expressing my emotions in public.
[Susan] Not so public, given that we were the only people in the movie theatre.
[Camestros] I think your expression of emotions was psychologically healthy but digging your claws into my scalp was less good.
[Timothy] And for that I have apologised and the bleeding has largely stopped.
[Camestros] Well putting CGI aside, what I was not expecting was a film that dwelt so much on sex and death. The words ‘sex’ and ‘death’ never appear but the whole thing is riddled with an odd eroticism and the plot strongly suggests that we are watching a post-apocalyptic death cult of cat-people picking a ritual sacrifice.
[Timothy] Hey, what can I say? Cats are just naturally sexy. Also we are walking avatars of death. What could a show about cats be other than sexy death murder?
[Susan] I missed that aspect but mammal sex rituals all seem odd to me.
[Camestros] Let me double back to the plot. Victoria, a white cat, is abandoned by her owner in a London back street. There she is recruited by a gang of cats called the Jellicle Cats. Coincidentally, this is the night of the Jellicle Ball where the cult leader, Old Deuteronomy (named after the book of the Bible which is a set of speeches by Moses), makes the Jellicle Choice i.e. she picks one of several candidates to die and be reborn. Most of the film is cats introducing themselves either to Victoria or to ensemble. Meanwhile, the Moriarty-like Macavity kidnaps…
[Camestros] …kidnaps, assorted contenders for the Jellicle Choice and traps them on a barge with Ray Winstone, so that he (Macacvity) will be the only contender for the Jellicle Choice. The plan goes awry and so Macavity kidnaps…
[Camestros] (sigh) kidnaps Old Deuteronomy to force her to ritually-murder him but she is rescued by the magical powers of Mister Mephistopheles the Magical Cat. Eventually the outcast cat Grizabella is chosen thanks to the intervention of Victoria and also because she gets to sing the only song everybody knows from the show. Grizabella ascends to a new life in a balloon.
[Susan] When you put it that way…it is kind of odd.
[Camestros] I mean Mephistopheles is literally named after a demon and he’s the nicest one of the Jellicle Cats. The whole thing works if none of the characters are actually cats but actually demonic cat beings.
[Susan] I don’t think demons aspire to go to heaven?
[Camestros] Oh don’t get me started on that…
[Timothy] Agreed, we probably should not get him started on that.
[Camestros] They don’t go to heaven, they go to the Heaviside Layer i.e. a section of the ionosphere named after Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925). This is the layer that allows radio waves to essentially ‘bounce’ off the atmosphere and hence be transmitted over the horizon. The basic function of which depends on the difference between the phase velocity of light and the group velocity of light. Are we supposed to consider that cats are actually composed of short wave radio signals or is it merely cat souls? Timothy, are you in fact the manifestation on Earth of radio signals?
[Timothy] Like all cats, I am an avatar of wave-particle duality.
[Susan] That would explain the repeated use of teleportation in the film.
[Camestros] Indeed! Although ostensibly both Macavity and Mister Mephistopheles are magic, the only feat of magic we see is teleportation.
[Timothy] Oh, you are going to get all genre-boundary now are you?
[Camestros] I think the whole thing is unambiguously Urban Fantasy with a quasi weird-physics background to the magic system. I would also point to a massive hint at the end, where a huge sign for Bovril (the popular beef essence spread) is displayed. Bovril of course, was named after Vril: the mysterious energy sourced featured in the 1871 Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel The Coming Race.
[Susan] OK, calm down primate. I’ll concede this whole film is freaky as but that’s it. It’s just weird and mainly by accident not design. I don’t think there’s any hidden message in a Bovril sign.
[Timothy] Was there a hidden message in the fact that the Rebel Wilson cat is a cat who is wearing a cat costume over the top of a dance costume underneath which is her regular cat body and also she has enslaved a group of mice that have the faces of human children and she forces them to play music and also she has a dancing troupe of cockroaches that also have human faces and she makes them dance and eats them?
[Camestros] I missed that bit because you were still clinging to my head. I mean, you are making all that bit up right?
[Susan] No…that did happen.
[Camestros] Sometimes I wonder if I dreamt the whole thing…
[Susan] I liked the railway cat.
[Camestros] Well you are famous for your tap-dancing.
[Susan] Shall I demonstrate for our viewers?
[Camestros, Timothy in unison] No!
[Camestros] No offence but tap dancing dinosaurs need a bit more space than we have in our podcasting booth.
[Camestros] Can we sum up our experience?
[Timothy] Cats is a disturbing examination of the nature of cat mortality. It contrasts youth with age and implies life itself may be a burden for which death is the only escape. Even Macavity, with all his power and influence and sexy dancing with catnip dispensing Taylor Swift-cat, craves an end to his existence and a new beginning. It scared the hell out of me.
[Susan] The film fundamentally misunderstands the nature of theatre. Cats as a musical works because within the bounds of a theatre performance, the audience expect to use their imagination to bridge the gap between what they see and what they are told they are seeing. The film attempts a realism that breaches this compact, presenting the audience with an unresolvable dilemma. What we are shown can be taken neither figuratively nor literally and so it falls into a void of the imagination.
[Camestros] I was at no point bored by this film. True, that was in part because of the hysterical reaction of my own cat. However, injuries aside this film passes a basic requirement for a good movie: it is diverting for the whole length of the film. Yes, it is really not obvious how to engage with it. Personally, I decided that either the cats were demons, post-apocalyptic cat-people living in an abandoned 1920s London or we were being shown how domesticated cats imagined themselves to be i.e. the film was attempting to show the interior lives of cat personalities.
[Susan] The set design was nice.
[Timothy] Yes, I liked the giant food.
[Camestros] Agreed. OK, take it away Timothy.
[Timothy – sings]
Cats-film, not a sound from the pavement,
All alone in the theatre,
No body else came,
The movie has had such appalling reviews,
That the Cats-film was a bomb
Cats-film! Please forgive us oh Cats-film!
You were really not awful,
And in many ways good,
It’s just that Cats-film, the CGI fur was terribly bad,
So poor Cats-film your fate was sad.
[Camestros] Thank you and goodnight.
I’m seeing what e-book formats I can make and host somewhere. Unfortunately WordPress will only allow PDF. However, my Neocities site (aka the Attic Workshop) will allow epub* (but not mobi). They don’t like hotlinking so here is a publisher page where you can get the epub version (possibly mangled) version of Beware the Annotated Cat – my translation of a classic work from Early Modern English to Late Stage Capitalism Pre-Collapsarian English.
Check it out and tell me if it works.
*[epub doesn’t appear on their file-type whitelist but it seems to work]
A follow up from the earlier post on John C Wright’s belief that the left (in general) is essentially a religion of witchcraft. I failed to include a link so here http://www.scifiwright.com/2017/03/the-last-crusade-in-the-kingdom-of-witches/
And again, recently, many throngs of lunatics in a ghastly display of vulgarity, completely with nudity, swearing, and other degradations, wearing images of women’s genitalia on their heads. The gathering was called a protest, but no protester could articulate for what cause they gathered. It was yet again called a political movement, albeit, again, no law nor policy nor any specific political act was demanded to be done or undone. What was it for?
They are rituals, ceremonial, magical. They are sacraments, symbols intended to create the result they symbolize.
In the comments to my post, Doris V Sutherland pointed to some statements made by Wright’s fellow Dragon Award winner, Brian Neimmeier. I’ll link to one of his posts that goes into some detail: http://www.brianniemeier.com/2015/12/the-demonic-obsession-of-cultural.html
Extraordinary demonic activity may occur in various ways. Some refer to these phenomena as “stages”, but they’re more properly called “areas”, since they don’t necessarily follow an orderly progression.
The areas of extraordinary demonic activity are:
External physical attacks: pain and/or harm inflicted by a demon.
Oppression: various external torments that often masquerade as extreme bad luck.
Obsession: uncontrollable, irrational thoughts induced by demonic activity.
Infestation: refers to demonic attachment to a place, an object, or even an animal.
Possession: one or more demons takes control of a person’s body (not the soul).
Subjugation: voluntary submission to demonic influence.
Brian then goes on to ask whether SJW’s show signs of demonic possession and concludes that most don’t show the signs but do show the signs of ‘demonic obsession’. He later concludes:
Since the current social crisis more likely involves external demonic obsession than internal possession, mass exorcisms aren’t required to address the problem. Just as physicians can mediate divine healing through their skill, ordinary people can mediate deliverance from evil through prayer and fasting on behalf of our afflicted brethren.
Phew! I for one, strongly encourage those concerned about SJWs to wholeheartedly put their efforts into prayer and (reasonable) fasting. Also, check under your bed for talking cats. Oh and maybe check your calendar to see if it is the sixteenth century still.
Oh, and one last sppoooookkkky thought – remember how the right keep projecting their own faults onto others? And now they think people are controlled by demonic forces? Sleep tight.
If you’ve read the previous posts then you should now have a good sense of what Beware the Cat is like. However, if you are like me, you are probably still trying to make sense of it.
The English Reformation was social, political and theological. It happened in the wake of an information technology revolution (the printed book), an increased centralisation of the state and a Marxian shift from feudalism to capitalism. It exists at a time of conflict and to readers now it is a conflict that is difficult to identify with.
At one level it is about the modern (Baldwin) versus the pre-modern (Thomas) and scholasticism (Streamer). There is a secular, sceptical and rationalist element to it that presages later thinkers (or near contemporaries such as Frances Bacon).
At the same time, it is an argument for the oppression of ideas, dismissive of folk tales, Catholic traditions and regional distinctions. The Elizabethan era that the book anticipates was a time when Englishness was standardised and enforced and essentially when English nationalism (and imperialism) was invented and codified. Religion, language and monarchy were all part of that mix.
State-sponsored violence in the name of religion would dominate England for centuries after. Europe would become engulfed in wars of religion. In this context, Baldwin’s funny cat-story mockery loses its humour.
Yet looking at it another way, there is a humanism to the book that is charming and positive. The mocking is mostly gentle, even when targeted at the occasional priest. Mr Streamer is richly drawn and more than just a figure of mockery – you could imagine him to be entertaining company in small doses. Mouseslayer is also given depth and character and there is something powerful in the way the most complex character is somebody who would be otherwise marginalised – a common household pet.
I see this as a book full of optimism – much of it misplaced given events but still optimism. Baldwin is siding with rationality over superstition and humanity over tradition and he sees that in his protestant cause. Reality isn’t so simple. Within months of writing the book, his expectations of a more rational protestant future were thrown on their head by the death of Edward and crowning of Mary.
Above all this is a subversive book. It lets ideas run where they will and out of control of each of the narrators. In an almost post-modern twist, the final moral arrives in the form of a post-hoc rationalisation using the same kind of reasoning as the servants discussing Thomas’s tales of swindling Irish witches and their red swine.
The cliche is that herding cats is nigh on impossible and the narrative of Beware the Cat has that same cat-like quality. It goes where it wants to and defies the expectations of the reader and (probably) the author. By avoiding direct allegory, the story can slip out of any simple propagandised reading. By making all the narrators unreliable or marginalised, Baldwin makes the whole text resistant to any single reading.
For example, I doubt Baldwin had any feminist thoughts while writing the book and the book covers some of the most misogynist tropes in literature – specifically that women may be witches responsible for all manner of ills (a trope with parallels in the myths exploited in anti-Semitism or anti-Romany campaigns of violence). Yet while drawing on these tropes, which are still familiar today, the nature of the story is to pull them apart and subvert them. The belief in witches is shown to be absurd. Demonic apparitions are church bells, or cats and the mass panic of crowds is shown to be true danger.
Even as message fiction it is subversive. So what can we make of anti-Catholic tract whose anti-Catholicism is tied so tightly to a crowd of cats running across the roofs of Tudor London? I doubt many present-day Catholics would find it threatening. Its power lay in being overtly disrespectful to ideas and people that pre-reformation held great political and social power.
Look, really the only thing we can say is that we should all just behave ourselves just in case our cats are talking about us behind our backs. Beware, as Baldwin reminds us, the cat.
Previously on Beware the Cat: Mr Streamer has entertained his friends with a story about he gained superhuman hearing, discovered an assembly of cats and listened to a series of stories from Mouseslayer the cat.
Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin
We finish with a moral. Baldwin has apparently forgotten about the original argument and instead focuses on a key lesson from Mouseslayer: cats see what we do, can understand what we say and tell all the other cats about it. As a consequence he says:
I would council all men to take heed of wickedness, and eschew secret sins and privy mischievous counsels, left, to their shame, all the world at length do hear of it. But if any man does put away his cat, then shall his so doing testify his secret naughty living, which he is more ashamed his cat should see than God and his angels, which see, mark, and behold all men’s closet doings.
Well it is his story but he does seem to have wandered off topic.
The main thing, it seems, is to live a life that your own cat won’t be ashamed of. Which is a good moral so long as you have a good cat.
This is the final part of the book. There will be one more post to conclude the series.
I KNOW these things will seem marvellous to many men that cats should understand and speak, have a government among themselves and be obedient to their laws; and were it not for the approved authority of the ecstatically author of whom I heard it, I should myself be as doubtful as they. Yet seeing that I know the place and the persons with whom he talked of these matters before he experienced his wonderful and strange confessions, I am the less doubtful of the truth.
Seeing that Mr Streamer has in his oration proved that cats do understand us and mark our secret doings, and so declare them among themselves that through help of the medicine by him described any man may, as he did, understand them. I would council all men to take heed of wickedness, and eschew secret sins and privy mischievous counsels, left, to their shame, all the world at length do hear of it. But if any man does put away his cat, then shall his so doing testify his secret naughty living, which he is more ashamed his cat should see than God and his angels, which see, mark, and behold all men’s closet doings.
That we may take profit by this declaration of Master Streamers, let us so live, both openly and private, that neither our own cat, admitted to all our secrets, be able to declare aught of us to the world save what is laudable and honest ; nor the devils cat, which, will we or nil we, sees and writes all our ill doings here, ought to lay against us afore the face of God, who, not only with shame, but with everlasting torments, will punish all sin and wickedness. And ever when you go about anything call to mind this proverb, “Beware the Cat,” not to tie up thy cat till those have done, but to see that neither your own nor the devils cat, which cannot be tied up, find anything there in to accuse you of shame.
Thus doing, you cannot do amiss, but shall have such good report through the cats declamation, that you shall in memory of Mr Streamer’s oration labour, who gives you this warning, sing unto God this hymn of his making.
WHO gives wit to whales, to apes, to owls,
And kindly speech, to fish, to flesh, to fowls;
And spirits to men in soul and body clean,
To mark and know what other creatures mean.
Which hast given grace to Gregory, no pope,
No king, no lord, whose treasures are this hope,
But silly priest, which like a Streamer waves,
In ghostly good despised of foolish knaves.
Which have, I say, given grace to him to know
The course of things above and here below;
With skill so great in languages and tongues,
As never breathed from Mithridates lungs.
To whom the hunter of birds, of mice, and rats,
Did squeak as plain as Kate that thomneth hats,
By mean of whom is openly bewraid
Such things as closely were both done and said.
To him grant, Lord, with healthy wealth and rest,
Long life to us to unload his learned breast ;
With fame so great to ever live his grave,
As none had erst nor any after have.
Previously on Beware the Cat: Mr Streamer has gained superhuman hearing. He found a place where he can spy on the cats that meet on the roof of Aldersgate and listened to a series of stories from Mouseslayer the cat.
Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin
Layer 2: main narrative spoken by Streamer
Layer 3: The council of cats
The story is nearly over. Mr Streamer wraps up some loose ends and eventually recovers his normal hearing. There is one more (and concluding) part after this.
Mouseslayer’s testimony from earlier nights is recounted as an overheard conversation by two cats in a garden. Here we hear briefly of a knight who spends too much time reading books that he neglects to sleep with his wife. Mouseslayer steals his breath, almost killing him – which is an interesting brief tale for a publisher to include in his book. A sly dig at himself?
This short section also significantly increases the range of people included in the book. Aside from the cats, the main characters have been priests (including Mr Streamer), servants, middle class men of unknown occupation and women running a household, and an Irish brigand.
The cast is centred around the Tudor urban middle-class and they people that they associate with. Aside from Patrick Apore, lower class characters are household servants. Upper-class people only appear in passing (such as the anecdote about Henry Tudor) or as objects of criticism (specifically the Pope). Priests, printers and merchants and their wives – the one woman who manages her own affairs runs a brothel of some sort but apparently moves in respectable circles.
Mr Streamer Concludes his Adventure
“When Grisard, Isegrim, and Poilnoes, the commissioners, had heard this declamation and requests of Mouseslayer, they prayed her much, and after they had commanded her with all the cats there to be on St. Catherine’s day next ensuing at Caithness, were (as she said) Cammoloch would hold his court, they departed.
And I glad to have heard what I heard, and sorry that I had not understood what was said the other two nights before, got me to my bed and slept.
The next morning when I went out into the garden, I heard a strange cat ask of our cat what Mouseslayer had done before the commissioners those three nights, to whom my cat answered that she had purged herself of a crime that was laid to her by Catchrat, and declared her whole life for six years space, whereof in the first two years she had five masters,—a priest, a baker, a lawyer, a broker, and a butcher, all whose privy deceits which she had seen she declared the first night ; in the two years after she had seven masters,—a bishop, a knight, an apothecary, a goldsmith, a usurer, an alchemist, and a lord, whose cruelty, study, craft, cunning, niggardness, folly, want, and oppression, she declared The second night wherein, their doing was notable ; because the knight, having a fair lady to his wife, gave his mind so much to his book that he seldom lay with her, this cat, pitying her mistress, and minding to scare him from lying alone, on a night when her master lay from her got to his mouth and drew to his breath, that she almost stifled him. A like part she played with the usurer, who being rich and yet living miserably, and faining him poor, she got one day while his treasure chest stood open and hid her there in, where of he, not knowing, locked her in it, and when at night he came thither again and heard one stirring there, and thinking it had been the devil, he called the priest and many other persons to come and help him to conjure, and when in their sight he opened his chest out leapt she, and they saw what riches he had, and shunned him thereafter. As for what was done and said yesternight, both of my lord Grisard’s hard adventure and Mouseslayer bestowing of her other two last years, which is nothing in comparison of any of the other twos years before, I need not tell you for you were present and heard it yourself.”
This told, lo I heard between these two cats, and though I went inside and broke my fast with bread and butter, and dined at noon with common meat, which so repaired my head again, and my other powers from the first digestion that by night time they were as normal as ever they were before; for I harked at night to other two cats, which, as I perceived by their gesture spoke of the same matter, I understood not a word.
So here have I told you all, chiefly you, my lord, a wonderful matter, and yet as incredible as it is wonderful; notwithstanding, when I may have convenient time I will tell you other things which these eyes of mine have seen, and these ears of mine have heard, and that of mysteries so far passing this that all which I have said now shall in comparison thereof be nothing at all to be believed. In the meantime while I will pray you to help to get me some money to convey me on my journey to Caithness, for I have been going thither these five years and never was able to perform my journey.”
When Master Ferries perceived that he would every man shut up his shop windows, which the aforesaid talk kept open two hours longer than they would have been.