Catharsis in Disaster: A Spiritual Defense of Cats

Screenwriter and editor Benjamin Shearn on why we should all appreciate the rare, unifying glory that is a bad movie of this magnitude.

All of the true masterpieces in cinema are miracles. So are the disasters.

A film’s quality is always attributed to directors, but I find this dismissive of a kind of circumstantial magic. An enduringly great movie is more often the case of a filmmaker at a very specific solstice in their career working with a very specific set of collaborators. And, more crucially, the film is produced at a time when industry and socio-political happenstance fall luckily in its favor.

The truth is that directors are completely vulnerable to the tumult of the process. Their masterpieces are a result of disparate phenomena coalescing into sublime art. The mortals who happen to channel that phenomena touch pop-culture immortality. And we worship them as Gods.

But what about the reverse image? What about films which, due to a similarly specific set of industrial and cultural circumstances, end up legendarily, unforgettably, exceptionally awful? Is that not equally as miraculous?

The critical pitchforking furor over Cats, while entertaining, is deeply oblivious to what a gift we’ve all just received.

It’s something like irony that Sir Ian McKellen played one of the rich chumps conned by a duplicitous Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation. In that film’s excoriation of high-brow apathy, the future theatre cat himself is seduced by a tall fraudulent tale of Sidney Poitier’s movie adaptation of Cats. John Guare, the writer of the play and film, clearly saw a movie version of Cats as so improbable that only a desperate, social-climbing, fabulist hustler could dream it up. And yet, 26 years on, here we are.

Hollywood had been trying to subsidize the musical sensation for so long it became conceptually abstract. Hence by the ’90s – when both the play and film of Six Degrees were produced – it was even a bit passé, a punchline. But seemingly not passé enough for the industry’s current insatiable zeal for nostalgic intellectual property.

A handful of film journalists have snarkily attempted to trace back the roots of the Cats debacle. Some have fingered an overconfident studio as patient zero, cavalier off the success of their Les Misérables adaptation and Cats’ abiding theatre fanship. Others blame the now infamously rushed post-production scramble. Most lazily mark it up to a conglomeration of bad taste.

The answer exists, ineffably, between all the elements. A film of this size has no single master. It’s a by-product of studio machinery powered by a perfect storm of spreadsheet creativity, CGI fetishism, pop star idolatry and, yes, a bit of unchecked bravura from an Oscar-minted director. The serendipity that all these stars aligned (or, I suppose, misaligned) to supernova as a cinema aberration this ludicrous feels, to me, nothing less than mystical.

If Cats had been made in the ’80s, it would not have even closely resembled the 2019 film. Only this director, this crew, this cast, this studio, this technological period, and this cultural moment could have managed the true anomaly that is this film; a foggy, fractured narrative playing out in an absurdly designed London alleyway, populated by grotesque, uncannily animated and schticking celebrities belting out antique Broadway chaos.

Cats is a genuinely surreal Hollywood diamond in a seemingly endless rough of corporately filtered cinema. This is the kind of bloated budget disaster product that spontaneously combusts along once in a generation (perhaps a lifetime). To simply add one’s voice to a simplistic chorus of scorn is shortsighted.

Think of everything a miscalculation this massive does for us. Primarily, it unites. Liberals and conservatives across ideological, ethnic and class spectrums can all momentarily join hands and sway, Coca-Cola like, in harmonious agreement that Cats is mythic movie junk.

Already there are whispers that the film may re-emerge as a new Rocky Horror. It’s even inspired a trend of rendering one’s Jellicle experience more visceral by way of psychedelic accoutrement. A film hasn’t compelled audiences to blow their minds like this since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Any critic who couldn’t see this forest through the trees and discouraged their readership from taking the ultimate trip through Cats (sober or otherwise) should probably retire.

I have a strong premonition that time will fade the feted so-called prestige films of 2019, and that Cats will outlive them all. Like I say, it’s only my gut but I’m confident the prediction will hold.

I don’t exactly see raucous midnight screenings in the future shelf lives of Marriage Story and Ash is the Purest White.

More deeply, though, I see Cats as a beautifully rare revelation into the fragility of the Hollywood industrial complex.

Almost everyone I know and every critic I read expresses fatigue and alienation with the current and uniquely American onslaught of superhero, animated and franchise movies. That thicket of commercialism can feel impenetrable, especially to filmgoers seeking something reassuringly and recognizably human.

Well, as Alexander Pope immortally stated, “To err is human,” and Cats is an extraordinary specimen of human error.

There was a moment when I saw Cats in the theater, and Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy was revealed, with the crumpled face of the great Dame awkwardly stuffed into swaying cartoon tufts. The entire theater detonated in spastic, uncontrolled HOWLS. I was infected, overwhelmed and crying, literally gasping for air in the midst of a full-body laughing fit.

I felt compelled to really look at the other faces in the dark and, I’m not kidding, to make eye contact and confirm with all readily available humans that, yes, this is really happening. Yes, the deranged imagery on screen isn’t a hallucination. And that, yes, we are going through it all together.

There, I felt more connected to the audience and experience than any other film in the past year. We were laughing in joyous defiance of an historically misguided Hollywood cash-in, but so much more so at our own human fallibility reflected back to us in spectacular phenomenistic fashion.

That rare sense of communion and catharsis through cinema, to me, is a true miracle. Let us rejoice.

Benjamin Shearn is a film editor and writer. His last feature, Ladyworld, premiered at BFI London, Fantastic Fest, TIFF: Next Wave and was presented as part of the Frontieres Showcase at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Shearn’s work in narrative and documentary films has also been exhibited at ComicCon San Diego, the Louisiana Museum of Art in Copenhagen, la Gaîté lyrique in Paris, as well as official selections of the CPH:DOX, Melbourne International, Planete+Doc, TIFF After Dark, Court Metrage du Clermont, Chicago and Boston Underground Film Festivals, amongst others. Currently, Shearn is editing Alaska Thunderfuck’s comedy special and the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, directed by Kier-La Janisse. For more of his work, go to benjaminshearn.com and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.