[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.