Cats (!!!…?)

Let me just say, that having seen it last night, that Cats is not a ‘good’ movie. The humor doesn’t work. The costumes are bizarre and often unsettling, sometimes horribly drawn on, especially for poor Jennifer Hudson.

It wasn’t even a good musical — the music is jarringly bad and remarkable in its un-catchy-ness and inability to get caught in your head. I woke up thinking that I had ‘Memory’ in my head but it was actually something from Phantom of the Opera.

Also! The entire movie is fucking insane! It’s fucking nuts! It’s comically fucking insane!

What the fuck is a jellical cat? What is the plot of this (spoiler alert: something about cat heaven)?

Why, for the love of God, are the cockroaches so humanoid? Why is the sense of scale so creepy?

How is it possible for something so asexual to be so sexually weird?

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Cats since I my parents took me to see it as a teenager on Broadway. It just seemed like this entirely inexplicable phenomenon.

Love, hate, or indifferent, it doesn’t take much to come up with plausible reasons why people would love Hamilton, or Phantom of the Opera, or Rent, or Evita, or [insert any musical that isn’t Cats here].

But Cats just felt so bizarre to me. In a way, many musicals feel like parodies of the musical genre to me — no matter how engrossing, I always fall out at some point in the middle and wonder “wait. this is ridiculous right? we all know this is ridiculous?”1).

That feeling was 10x with Cats because it’s grown adults dressed and made up as cats in tights singing about being cats AND YET SOMEHOW CATS WAS AT ONE TIME THE LONGEST-RUNNING MUSICAL OF ALL TIME AND GROSSED OVER 1.3 BILLION DOLLARS I DON’T KNOW IF THAT’S INFLATION-ADJUSTED OR NOT BUT STILL.

II.

I’m reading All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, an oral history of one of the great shows of all time, back when the golden age was really golden and men were… metrosexual… or something.

One thing that surprised me was that the original script for episode 3.11, has Omar and Brother Mouzone shooting Stringer Bell and then pissing on his dead body, which apparently was the rigor in Baltimore gang wars at the time.

The actor, Idris Elba, was so incensed by the desecration of his character’s dead body that he threatened to walk off the show and eventually the writers changed the script. I admire Elba, who wasn’t yet the star that he is today, for having the chutzpah to make a stand and risking his reputation as an actor that’s easy to work with.

All of this leads me to the question: what the fuck was Idris Elba thinking joining the cast of Cats?

What were any of these people thinking?

I know that probably comes off as snark. I swear, I’m not being snarky.

I’m honestly and earnestly curious about how and why this movie was made. And I have a theory about how the cast came aboard:

“I auditioned [Taylor Swift] for ‘Les Mis’ and she was brilliant,” Hooper recalled. “And actually, I reached out to Taylor first among all the actors…I wrote to her and said, ‘Would you consider being part of the cast?’ And she said yes straight away. So, she was actually the building block that created the cast of the whole film.”

‘Cats’ Director Tom Hooper Didn’t Finish Movie Until Hours Before World Premiere

My theory is that Hooper got Swift on board because of his reputation for his previous work (Les Mis, The King’s Speech) and then used that to get other actors to come on board and next thing you know, you have Judi Dench and Taylor Swift and Idris Elba and of course they all want to work together, they’re all great and famous and this sounds like a lot of fun.

I don’t think any of them had any idea how the thing would look in the end, and maybe nobody did, not even Hooper, until there it was and you’ve already spent a ton of money and you might as well release it and see what happens.

I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it seems plausible, and maybe that’s just a risk of relying so heavily on CGI — you don’t really know how it’s going to look until you do it. Maybe they didn’t really test it, first. I don’t know.

III.

So, how to feel about all of this?

On one hand, I think that this movie is the result following a blind faith in IP to its logical conclusion. It’s not original to point out how severely depressing it is, the extent to which anything with a big budget these days goes to something that is a remake, a sequel, an adaptation, or anything with existing “IP.”2.

I mean for as bad as this movie has been panned and how much of a ‘failure’ it is, it’s still made $40 million at the box office.3 That’s not a lot by Hollywood success standards, but it’s still a lot of money, more money than Uncut Gems, Midsommar, and many other good and well-known movies.

If it had been made for less, somehow, maybe by using costumes instead of CGI, we might even be talking about it as a surprise success.

IV.

But.

I had a great time seeing Cats in a theater last night. It wasn’t a good movie but it was an entertaining theater experience. I mean that sincerely.

I went with friends and the nearly-full theater in Chicago came for the fun. We shouted at the screen, we meow’d in derision, and we laughed. A lot. It was really funny. I know, not in the way it was intended (none of the intended jokes landed).

But it was a genuinely good time in a movie theater, and that’s more than I can say for more than a few movies I’ve seen in the past year, notably the Rise of Skywalker, which was a dull slog and all the more painful because I loved Star Wars as a kid and well, Cats the musical was well, you know.

And there was something genuinely exciting to me about the existence of this thing on a meta level, about the inexplicableness of it — you might say it’s… ineffable.

If some people get together and make something inexplicable, bizarre, strange, liable to rewire your sexuality if you see it in the wrong headspace, or just plain fucking nuts, I mean I think we should at least celebrate the effort.

We should have movies that are weird and bold and insane and inexplicable, even if it means having some spectacular failures.

And if we’re going to lament the Marvel- and Disney-ification of movies today, then we ought to be more charitable to what breaks the mold, even if it is a disaster.

I think we people who care about movies, who want to see great movies, that we should encourage the creation of more insane and weird movies, if for no other reason than that occasionally one of them will be amazing or blow us away.

All of this is to say – I don’t know. Maybe it’s the alcohol or maybe it’s the haunting image of Rebel-Wilson-as-CGI-cat eating a living humanoid cockroach that’s making it hard to process what I think about this movie, but I’m really happy that it exists.


  1. A feeling that I couldn’t express in words until I saw the brilliant Porcupine Racetrack sketch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW3N_NK6-ps 

  2. The use of IP has always bugged me a bit, since all writing is IP, at least all writing done now, while remaking Sense and Sensibility doesn’t involve intellectual property in a legal sense, it’s in the public domain. 

  3. As of January 5, 2020. 

Transgressive behavior: when is it celebrated and when is it punished by power?

I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.

The answer is complicated and goes into the way sexuality and gender were viewed in the 1600s1, but this passage from Eva Mendieta’s In Search of Catalina de Erauso, highlights something interesting:

First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.

In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.

In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)

Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:

You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.

Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.

I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.


  1. See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. 

Despite your complete lack of distinguishing features, we have decided to hate you

The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:

Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.

Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.

They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.

They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).

So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.

The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.

Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!

“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”

The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.

Witch hunts

From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.

You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.

A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.

If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.

Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:

“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.

“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”

That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.

And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.

Two competing revolts

From gwern’s 2018 news:

I don’t know how many blue-collar workers they will put out of work—even if software is solved, the robotic hardware is still expensive! But factories will be salivating over them, I’m sure. (The future of self-driving cars is in considerably more doubt.)

A standard-issue minimum-wage Homo sapiens worker-unit has a lot of advantages. I expect there will be a lot of blue-collar jobs for a long time to come, for those who want them. But they’ll be increasingly crummy jobs. This will make a lot of people unhappy.

I think of Turchin’s ‘elite overproduction’ concept—how much of political strife now is simply that we’ve overeducated so many people in degrees that were almost entirely signaling-based and not of intrinsic value in the real world and there were no slots available for them and now their expectations & lack of useful skills are colliding with reality?

In political science, they say revolutions happen not when things are going badly, but when things are going not as well as everyone expected.

My speculative view is that there will be (or currently are) two competing revolts: one from the aspirational 14% and one from the working class.

Both will face disruption from automation. Both will be angry about a promised future that does not exist: the manufacturing jobs won’t be there anymore, but neither will the guaranteed high-wage jobs promised to college graduates.

I don’t think we have a way of talking about this really, or finding solutions to it that work for most of society. Something like the UBI can ameliorate the personal finance aspects of the disruption, but to me, that just feels like throwing money at the problem.

People want meaning and status through their work; they want to feel like they are important and making a contribution. Just giving people money doesn’t solve that.





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