How ‘Cats’ Saved My Love for Film

The Prelude, or How This Year Almost Killed Me

2019 brought in a hallmark of cinema. From bold and risk-taking Hollywood blockbusters, to enchanting and enthralling auteur cinema. It was also the year I was considering quitting film entirely. Indeed, there were wonderful, fantastic films aplenty in recent years, but one thing kept affecting my enjoyment of it all: film elitism and discourse I would see on the internet. Discussion and debates are important. I am not shy to be involved in – or even spark – internet debate regarding film. It’s a subject and market that interests me greatly, something I want to do in the future as a growing writer. And the internet was killing that love for me.

The Scorsese Incident

I believe it began around the cautionary hype around The Irishman. As the film was gaining attraction and buzz, it came out that the film will be released at a dazzling 3 hour, 29 minute film length, beating out Avengers: Endgame that released around six months prior at a still-surprising 3 hours, 2 minute runtime. Summon the hordes of internet nay-sayers, who denounced The Irishman with adamance that there is no place for a drama that lasts over three hours long. I can understand the general audience’s issue with that. A whole three-and-a-half hours is not a short time, and it would take plenty of attention and free-time in order to give the movie the time of day. On the positive, it managed to nab a significant 17 million viewers, but within its first two months, only 18% of those 17 million managed to actually finish the film.

Avengers: Endgame (2019), Copyright Marvel Studios

Nobody was done with The Irishman, however. Leading up to the release, Martin Scorsese said something that shook the internet and — if we’re ever so unlucky — will remain a quote for years from now. He stated,

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” Scorsese told Empire. “Honestly, the closest I can think of them – as well made as they are – with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

What came from all that was a cavalcade of misquoting, hatred, and memes that spread through the internet like some kind of zombie-apocalypse plague. This controversial remark has made headlines across the internet, cinephiles in agreement with the filmmaker and Marvel audiences lashing back as if their lifestyle was being threatened. Nobody took into account that Martin Scorsese is a simple director with specific visions for film.

Now this is where I drop some opinions, so be warned. Art and genre is an ever-changing subject; a genre and product can change through the years and evolve as a result. Superheroes are no exception to this rule. True, we’ve seen mature and artistic films like Logan, Into the Spider-Verse, and Joker take bold, creative risks with tone, style, and depth. Not every superhero flick is a sadistic, explosive, CGI-porn affair that only exist for money and seeking nationwide nerd-gasm (well, it’s always about the money with most of these films, but I hope the message is still clear to some). That being said, there is no denying that while the Marvel film universe’s commendable efforts to keep their stories connected and consistent with varying tones and artistic approaches – with the odd few modest critical flops to get where they are now – some do exist out of sheer obligation, taking few risks and exist solely for marketing and to become a money vacuum.

You may love or hate Martin Scorsese as a director, but the general reception from the online modest film community has greatly affected people’s views on him, Irishman, and filmmaking as an artform. Twitter blasted him while he was making headlines. He was ridiculed in talk shows, award shows, and comedy sketches nationwide. Some saw his message as good intent and a valid opinion, while others saw it as a malicious threat to their favorite cinematic universe, and may forever serve as a warning on the rabidness and dedicated passion of hardcore fandom.

The Irishman (2018), Copyright TriBeca Productions

The Fight from ‘Marriage Story’

On December 9, the famed awards show The Golden Globes announced their full list of nominations, celebrating the films and television of 2019. Among the most notable of the 10 nominations were four Netflix films: Irishman, Two Popes, Dolemite is My Name, and Marriage Story. Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, was acclaimed upon release, quickly gaining widespread media attention about its story of two ambitious partners in their toxic, declining relationship and the troubles of divorce. Led by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson, the film holds an emotional punch, never letting go of the viewer without speaking down to them. Marriage Story earning itself six nominations, including best performances by Driver and Johannson, and best screenplay. That’s when another internet controversy occurred, souring people’s perspectives on the film even further.

A clip from the climax of the film – the relationship of the couple finally nearing its rapture and the two attacking each other with vicious and heartbreaking insults – was released to the masses, intending to celebrate the performances of the lead actors and the screenplay with it. Instead of getting the positive reactions they likely expected, they only received more ridicule and negativity. People saw this clip as an example of Oscar-bait, an overacted, overwritten piece that exists only to garner attention and awards. Many of these responses, by people who haven’t even seen the movie, are suddenly bashing the film based on this quick, contextless scene without understanding the characters and the tension of the story and relationship within. Nobody would listen or understand; Marriage Story became a joke in many circles, memes and edits of the scene taking over. Without bothering to give the movie attention, the scene itself was treated as the final product, representative of the movie as a whole.

While I attempt to allow other thoughts and opinions that contradict my own the best I can, seeing people lambast this film based on a single scene they fail to understand the context for, got to me on a mental and spiritual level. While I knew there were people like myself who loved the movie regardless, the hate bandwagon of the scene grew and grew to the point where I felt like I was in the minority. While the controversy did not sour my thoughts on the film itself, I was beginning to lose faith in the movie community, as well as my own interests and career path.

Marriage Story (2019), Copyright Heyday Films

The Part Where I Talk About Star Wars

Later in the year, a small indie title by the name of Star Wars IX: Rise of Skywalker was reaching its release. People were cautious surrounding the controversial and mixed reception of The Last Jedi by Rian Johnson. Some fun controversy and internet circlejerks were inevitable, and I mentally prepared myself for such. Like the other movies on this piece, my actual opinion is secondary to my actual message. That being said, I don’t need to tell you how much I abhor Skywalker. You’re not here for me to tell you the decisions made by Lucasfilms resulted in a horrible, confusing, frustrating blunder. Nobody is here for that, so I’ll keep my opinions of this rancid film out.

If the release of Last Jedi was any indication, the fan reaction to Rise of Skywalker was about what anyone would have expected. That is to say, nothing positive at all. Leading up to Skywalker‘s release, the discourse was already starting to show, with more and more people looking back at the series, most of them unforgiving of Rian Johnson’s treatment of their franchise, and believing the franchise is now forever a lost cause.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Copyright Lucasfilms

Toxic fandom reaction I can normally deal with. There were those out there that give Rian Johnson respect, and those that don’t just blindly hate Last Jedi, offering good insight on why the movie doesn’t work for them. Rather, the discourse of the acclaimed Star Wars release came from the cast of the film themselves. In an interview with Times, the cast confirmed their reaction to J.J. Abrams returning as director.

But when it was announced that Abrams was indeed returning, his actors breathed sighs of relief. “I cried,” Ridley said, explaining that the director brought a comforting sense of structure and security. Boyega said he was glad that Abrams would get to finish the tale he’d begun in Episode VII. “Even as a normal person in the audience, I wanted to see where that story was going,” Boyega said.

In summary, the cast did not stay grateful for Johnson’s take on the series and effectively threw him under the bus. Now, I can’t say I entirely blame them, however. Last Jedi, for better or worse, was a unique take on the franchise, and the divisiveness shows, from the mixed reviews of the films to the fans blatantly threatening the cast and crew of the film, as the harassment and racism that led Kelly Marie Tran to delete her Instagram altogether. In ways, Rise of Skywalker managed to please once-disappointed fans, or retroactively tarnish the franchise for others altogether. Like the other movies mentioned here, the quality of the film is secondary to what I’m trying to get across. It was reactionary, toxic fandom that led this franchise to spiral out of control and nobody knows what to do with it now. For now, I can only hope the success of The Mandalorian eased some of the hostile fans, but the aggression brought out by them is there. To be sure, not every Star Wars fan is like this, and those that are could merely be a small minority. A very vocal, very aggressive minority, at that.

Finding Hope in Cats

Movie controversies are not uncommon, but for some strange reason or another, 2019 was the year I was finally noticing it. It came at a point in my life where I was discovering more and more films, educating myself on the subject and my desire to explore more. I’d likely die before I see every single film I want to see, and that thought keeps me up at night. But as I looked back at this year, seeing nothing but hate and discourse, it had led me down a path of wondering what impact I can make, if any, in this industry. As an aspiring screenwriter and movie critic, was there anything I could do to ease this tension, or will I be caught in that hateful, franchise-obsessed fanboy elitism? Am I wrong for thinking in certain ways? Is my taste in film poor? Should I quit film altogether?

I kept my head high, telling myself this discourse is from a mere small population of people who don’t understand what they’re saying. But even with that mindset, it was hard for me to enjoy anything film-related. I felt like I was trapped in a void where everybody will constantly disagree and berate each other. Movies are where my passion comes from, and what’s the point if I have nothing to say?

Fortunately for me – and I’m sure this is what you’re all here for – all these burdens and doubts were cleared up when I saw what I consider to be a disastrous beauty of a film. A film that, upon hindsight, made me reconsider everything I know and had doubts about. No movie in 2019 made me feel the way I did as Tom Hooper’s Cats. Is it a frustrating, boring, tedious nightmare of a film that won’t let you go? Pretty much. Is it a once-in-a-lifetime, oddity of a movie? Damn sure.

Cats (2019), Copyright Universal Pictures

Cats, based on the 1981 Broadway production of the same name, is unapologetic in what it is and what it strives to be. To give a summary of the plot of the film for the sake of this review is both complicated and unnecessary. On one hand, to give an exact plot summary for this Lynchian experience cannot possibly do it justice, as explaining what it was I witnessed cannot possibly be accurate. That is to say, if a family member of mine were held hostage and the captor would only let them go if I gave a detailed, elaborate recollection of the story, it would be a while before I ever got to see my loved family member again.

Something about cats, obviously, that’s a given. They’re very horny. They’re… jellicles? And before you can ask yourself what a jellicle is, James Corden cat begins singing about how much he loves eating garbage. Taylor Swift cat eventually shows up, who is unfortunately the highest-billed cast member in this film. Jennifer Hudson cat sings Memories. She wins and is lifted off to God-only-knows-where.

But on the other hand? Going over the “plot” can ruin the experience of the movie, much like how explaining the most basic plot elements can ruin any great film. The plot is secondary to what message the film is trying to send out. This is a surreal, nightmarish, cinematic wonder that nobody but the likes of Lynch and Carpenter can imagine. You’re there for dazzling set-pieces, the eerie human-cat special effects, and hopefully a few songs. And certainly you get all of these. Was there intent behind the actual story of the film? It doesn’t matter. Cats, in the end, is what it is. It lives in a world where nothing makes sense and you must accept it.

I want to make it clear that I, in some sense, abhor this movie. It’s irritating, annoying, and somehow paper-thin and bloated all at once. It also managed to snap me out of my film depression. Look anywhere on the internet, and you will see a mountain of people hating Cats. You will see another mountain of people who love it. Both for the right and wrong reasons. You hate Cats? Nobody will care. You love Cats? No one bats an eye. There is a weird poetic nature to the film, where everybody will collectively both agree and disagree on Cats, but will soon come to an understanding.

Cats (2019), Copyright Universal Pictures

The future for Cats is unknown. Years from now, will it be looked back on as a misunderstood movie by the reaction crowd for being different and unashamedly itself? Will it be destined for cult status by the so-bad-it’s-good crowd? Will it be lost in the wind, forever forgotten as a weird remnant from its past? For now, it’s a movie that made me reflect on my doubts and confidence as a writer and film buff. It is my opinion that you must endure the bad in life to fully appreciate the good. Cats is no exception to that rule. It’s not a good movie by any stretch, but it’s the most important and life-changing one I’ve seen in years. I mean this with all my heart. And I’m thankful for its existence. Hopefully 2020 will be yet another inspired year for cinema, and that any film discourse will be limited only to corporate greed and artistic integrity, never losing sight of-

…Well. It was to be expected.

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