Cats: The Theatre of Lost Souls, by Tyler Smith
It begins with horror. As strange-looking creatures skulk out of the shadows, their forms coming into sharper focus, our eyes widen as we begin to understand what we’re seeing. Nightmarish human-feline hybrids begin to emerge from the darkness, laughing and dancing, as from some perverted Dr. Moreau vaudeville act. At first it is hard to believe that an entire film could ever be built around such monsters. But Tom Hooper’s Cats confounds all concepts of basic cinematic decency, as it stands center stage and boldly – shamelessly – defies its audience to look upon it and despair.
It is indeed an astounding sight, and one that seems like it simply shouldn’t be. But, shockingly, with each passing song, we grow more and more accustomed to this garish reality, until – much to our own chagrin – we begin to enjoy ourselves. At times we actually laugh along with the horrible creatures, and even we cry with them. We get caught up in the absurd fever dream, made all the more immersive by the performers’ commitment; their tragic conviction that they are engaging in a more worthwhile endeavor. Our pity for these poor souls begins to turn inward as we discover that our sympathy has turned to empathy and that we are, in fact, being swept up in their delirious fervor. How could we ever look upon this carnival of misshapen wretches with anything other than disgust? How is such a thing possible?
Ah, but, against all human reason, it is possible. It is. As the orchestrator of this monstrosity creates a surreal, Dickensian world of cobblestone streets and worn down buildings, the theatricality of it all washes over us, and we find ourselves accepting a reality we never thought we could. A reality in which a fat cat named Bustopher Jones makes us smile with his prissy hedonism. Where we mourn the passing of a bygone era, as mangy old Gus sings of his early days in the theatre. And we thrill as insecure Mr. Mistoffelees manages to overcome his self doubt and save the day.
Certainly, the sheer insanity of it all reasserts itself frequently, as these inhuman creatures hiss and purr, nuzzling each other in a deeply unsettling way. And as they bury their humanoid faces in their saucers and lap up their curdled milk, we curse ourselves for ever getting pulled into this ridiculous spectacle. This is to say nothing of the sensuality of the performances, making the audience progressively more uncomfortable with each passing moment.
The nightmare ends with grandiose pretensions of profundity, and, as we emerge back into the normal world, we puzzle over what we have just witnessed. A surreal circus of man-animals whose insane musical ramblings frequently cross the line into the realm of madness, but somehow still managed to ensnare us, against all odds and our own best efforts.
And so we go back to our lives and loved ones, trying to outrun the memory of Tom Hooper’s Cats. But not just the memory; the knowledge. The crushing, mocking knowledge that we did not react with complete abhorrence to the ill-conceived abomination that we were briefly a part of. We try to ignore the sad fact that, if presented with just the right mix of style and commitment, we are apparently capable of accepting anything. These thoughts scamper about in the backs of our minds, toying with us like a cat playing with a mouse, keeping us humble, reminding us of our own lowly delights. We try to dismiss them, but we can’t. And we go in fear.