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Posts Tagged ‘weird stuff’

Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in Cats are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper’s movie. ‘Battlefield Earth with whiskers,’ was the coup de grace of one assessment; ‘a dreadful hairball of woe’ was another; ‘it’s just not finished‘ was the despairing cry of one professional viewer – one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one’s time feeling sorry for oneself – the charitable thing to do is to spend one’s time feeling sorry for Cats.

Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible.  That said, the film hasn’t exactly helped itself – Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like ‘sticking plaster’, ‘on’, and ‘a shark bite’ do creep into my mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled ‘Jellicle songs for jellicle cats’. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word ‘jellicle’, which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn’t really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren’t many obvious rhymes for it (‘petrochemical’, maybe, and ‘Ecumenical’; one might even suggest ‘genital’, but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).

Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it’s a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot’s writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.

What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren’t many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it’s all ‘I Am’ and not much ‘I Want’; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don’t really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.

Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they’ve got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI’d onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It’s just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn’t sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or – well, look, I’m not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.

Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that ‘Memory’, the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number – here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I’m afraid.

In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 10th 2003:

[Another attempt at smart-arsery. I wish I could say it was out-of-character. Sorry everyone. Don’t worry about all the h2g2 in-jokes and just roll with it.]

Simulated dust motes danced in simulated sunlight as Shazz made yet another of her occasional attempts to clear up the mess in the H2G2 Post Office. I’m not surprised this is a virtual environment, she thought, it’s virtually uninhabitable for one thing.

Thrusting another half-dozen empty doughnut cartons into an already overflowing bin she paused to light her pipe. Rich, aromatic green fumes added to the already murky office atmosphere and a languid moment was only disturbed by a salvo of liquid barking noises as Shazz nearly coughed up a lung.

The cleaning attempt temporarily put on hold Shazz sat down behind her ink-stained desk and mused about the next edition. All the usual suspects, she thought, although as usual one member of the team was shockingly behind deadline, delaying her, inconveniencing the Towers, and letting down the other contributors. Utterly, reprehensibly irresponsible, Shazz thought with disgust. When I get my hands on –

‘Awix!’ she said, cranking a saintly smile onto her face as a familiar figure shambled in through the virtual door. There was no mistaking the pallid hairless dome, the rolls of fat, or the terrible dress-sense. ‘I was hoping you’d pop in today.’

‘Uh, well, erm,’ Awix responded with a confused smile. He stepped aside to let his slim and lovely girlfriend Lisa follow him into the office. ‘Got the, uhr, stuff if you still need it.’

‘Great. Hi Lisa,’ Shazz smiled. ‘Wow, that dress looks great on you!’

‘Thanks, it’s Italian.’ Lisa and Shazz did that French air-kissing thing – Shazz could tell Awix was watching and thinking about Tatu from the gawping lasciviousness of his expression. ‘So, what have you got for us this week?’

‘Um, right.’ Awix fished about in his pockets. ‘Freshly edited episode of 168, same again for The Edge… oh, and we were thinking about doing another TV review thing.’

That’ll play well with readers from outside the UK, thought Shazz in near-despair. ‘And what about one of your film reviews? That’s the really popular thing you do!’ Though God alone knows why…

‘Oh, yeah, that. Well, you see, I, um…’

‘What Awix is trying to say that is that he feels we’re stuck in a bit of a stylistic rut at the moment,’ Lisa explained. ‘He feels every review kicks off with some generic comments, then we write a synopsis with some cheap and obvious gags in it, then try to make serious critical points for a couple of paragraphs. He wants to try something different.’

‘Oh. Good,’ Shazz said dubiously. ‘So what did you go and see this week?’

Adaptation.,’ Awix said. ‘It’s got that guy out of Con Air in it but he’s got really fat. It’s dead weird.’

‘It comes on like the sound of one man screaming into his own navel,’ Lisa revealed. ‘It does seem like an incredibly self-indulgent film. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, has written himself into his own screenplay as the main character. He was supposed to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief but he’s written a film about how he impossible he actually found doing that. And God knows how or why, but the studio made it.’

‘Wasn’t this the one with a few Oscar nominations?’ Shazz enquired helpfully.

‘Uh, yeah. The fat guy, and the guy what wrote it, and wossname Cooper,’ Awix said cheerily. ‘Only one of them won though. The thing is that most of the characters are, like, real people, but made-up versions of themselves.’

‘Fancy that,’ Shazz sighed. ‘It sounds a bit self-reflexive. You know, in-jokey?’ – this last added to try and dispel Awix’s look of blank incomprehension.

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ Awix said. ‘I didn’t get all the jokes, you’d need some kind of brochure to explain it to you, probably. Well, I didn’t, Lisa was there to explain it all to me, weren’t you, chickadee? And the Kaufman guy comes off as really kind of up himself, writing himself as this neurotic geeky guy – God, I despise these self-pitying writers, always putting themselves down and fishing for compliments. He’s given himself this imaginary twin brother, too, played by the same guy out of Con Air.’

‘But to be fair to him, Kaufman makes a reasonable stab at justifying what’s basically a wildly and possibly unnecessarily eccentric and convoluted script,’ Lisa said, smiling fondly at her beloved. ‘Kaufman the character writes the script of the film he appears in, which can get a bit weird. But all the performances are really very strong and it’s a very funny film.’

‘Oh, good,’ Shazz said distractedly. Awix had started poking through the pile of litter she’d just painstakingly assembled, in search of doughnut fragments. Fat chance of that with Greebo about, she thought. ‘So how does the plot work? Is there one?’

‘Well,’ Lisa said, her face becoming more serious. ‘For most of the running time this is a film really without a conventional narrative. Kaufman sets out to write something completely at odds with the traditional screenplay structure, a story where the participants don’t have traditional aims or motivations and without a normal sense of closure. So we get a series of scenes reflecting this, intercut with him worrying about how a script of this type is actually impossible to write. He’s really trying to have his cake and eat it here but it’s enormously entertaining.

‘Then, near the end of the film, he gives in and the movie adopts an almost hyperbolically cliched thriller style, as if to mock his earlier aspirations. The shift in style is brilliantly, subtly achieved – and, come to think of it, what I’ve just said probably counts as a massive spoiler, so I’d better leave it out of the actual review when Awix and I get around to writing it. The whole film is self-indulgent and probably too clever for its own good, but it’s also an extremely witty wail of frustration from a writer, despairing of the tyranny of regular storytelling structure but also giving in and accepting that, in order to work, that kind of structure is normally essential – films need closure, characters need to grow, objectives must be attained.’ Lisa shrugged. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

‘So, to make an analogy, any kind of review, simply because it’s a review, must contain a few solid paragraphs of analysis somewhere down the line?’ Shazz enquired.

‘Yes, that’s about right,’ Lisa agreed.

Awix sighed and put down the bin he’d been rooting through. ‘I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say in the preview of the movie,’ he announced. ‘Y’know, in the new style.’

Review, honey,’ Lisa said with an indulgent smile.

‘Whatever. I thought I’d be, like, punchy and outspoken and maybe give a rating – like three out of five little stars? And some pithy comment like how this kind of clever arty film is all very well once in while but give me something with kung fu and rappers and lapdancing any week. Oh, and then I thought I’d put in a kind of blatant plug-stroke-link for The Vault of Lies-‘

‘I shouldn’t bother, no-one ever reads the back issues,’ Shazz said. ‘What do you want to put as the byline?’

‘The what?’ Awix gawped at her.

‘The bit on the front page saying what the article’s actually about,’ Shazz sighed.

‘How about, “Another brilliant film review by Awix”?’ he said with an artless grin. ‘Or “Awix honours us with his words of wisdom once more.” Or –‘

‘How about, “Awix risks seriously pissing off his editor”?’ Shazz suggested, deadpan.

Awix blinked at her. ‘Erm, well, if that’s what you think is best. It’s only a movie for smart-arses, after all.’

‘Personally I really liked it,’ Lisa said with a shrug. ‘But it’s your column, darling. I know what you mean though – Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant writer and can pull this kind of metatextual conceit off. I shudder to think what would happen if any old amateur hack tried copying his style. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t be pretty.’

Shazz shuddered involuntarily. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It absolutely wouldn’t.’

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