To paraphrase the blockbuster musical “Cats,” Jellicles can and Jellicles do. But should they have?
A trailer for “Cats” the movie, director Tom Hooper’s latest cinematic vivisection of a popular musical, was unleashed upon an innocent public July 18. It is notable for its familiar Andrew Lloyd Webber score, A-List talent and its Doctor Moreau-esque human-cat hybrids that made many appalled viewers look upon their whiskered familiars with a newfound terror.
Using what Hooper described as cutting-edge “digital fur technology,” the filmmaker has rendered Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and Dame Judi Dench as abominable dancing creatures whose confused proportions wouldn’t make the cut in a medieval bestiary. But while this feline nightmare swirled in my head – it doesn’t help that I am allergic to the titular animal – I realized that Hooper’s menagerie of demons looked familiar to me.
While one may be tempted to pin the blame on sometime anti-Semite and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot, whose collection “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (1939) was the source text for Webber’s musical, or on Webber himself, the hair-iffic visuals appeared to me to be referencing the work of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall.
In a number of paintings, notably “The Cat Transformed Into a Woman” (completed in 1937) and his earlier “Paris Through the Window” (1913), Chagall gifted the world with, respectively, a cat with a human body and a cat with a human face. Both creatures appear to be in a state of perpetual terror, knowing that they should not exist and probably wishing that they could be put out of their unnatural misery. Do they dance or sing? It’s unclear, but I suspect if they were brought to life they’d simply shiver for a few seconds before expiring at the hands of a merciful God.
Hooper has excused some of his more dubious cinematic choices by citing the art of the times he’s committing to screen. He noted that the old lenses and oversaturated light used in “The Danish Girl” were informed by Danish artists of the 1920s. He’s said his intense research of a period “leads me towards subversive imagery” - somehow you can blame Revolutionary War-era political cartoons for the unrelenting Dutch Angles of his “John Adams” miniseries. Taking this record into account, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Hooper was taking some inspiration from Chagall, given that the painter and Eliot were contemporaries and fellow Modernists.
That said, these hackle-raising critters may just as well be the result of a bad ayahuasca trip or indebted to Ron Perlman’s character in the 1980s TV series of “Beauty and the Beast” or this cat who looks like Ron Perlman (in an oversight, Ron Perlman is not in the “Cats” cast).
Any way you skin it, this “Cats” will certainly have people talking when it slinks into theaters this December. Let’s hope its horrors don’t lead to the return of many a Hanukkah kitten.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.