By Dina Levina
In nearly every person’s life I’m sure there comes a moment, perhaps not even once nor twice, when they ask themselves – where am I going? Am I good or bad? Is not my life devoid of purpose, meaning? One thing is certain – of where I am going today I’m fully aware. Through snow and slush I carry these bothersome thoughts to a cinema in the middle of the city I never loved. There’s a huge sinister Soviet mosaic on one side of the building, a monstrous billboard with oil company ads upfront, summing up the country perfectly. How dreadful it must be with Russian dubbing I’ll never know – some things are better left unexplored. I’m mildly scared – the gifs I’ve been sent the other day disturbed me – yet it’s the last chance to see the movie and I’m grabbing at it.
The final screening of CATS is about to happen at the same place where I saw the local premiere of The Room a few years back: symbolic. These two are now being compared but they’re different. The Room makes sense. At its core there’s a simple dramatic narrative that works despite all. The Room is relatable. The thing I’m about to witness is beyond the realms of relatability. Since drugs are illegal, I’m treating it as a way of having a trip, good or bad. Turns out it’s gonna be both at once. The ticket number ends in 666, the number of the beast. It’s early morning and the theatre is empty but for a bunch of sleepy employees. In the end it’s only me and five weird-looking ladies in the auditorium when darkness falls. It’s about to begin.
Unsettling – the only word that comes to mind from the very first seconds. It feels wrong and you’re not entirely sure why. I glimpse a cemetery, the wrong shapes, the shadows. Five minutes in and I cannot stop laughing. Crying. Trying to sneak a message to a friend to share the experience but the feelings are impossible to convey. I end up just typing “help” and promptly hide the phone – can’t miss a single second of what begins to unravel before me. The music sounds twisted, cheap, yet somehow I don’t feel violated by what the movie has done with the songs. I soak it all in greedily, I revel in it. It’s beautiful. I’m so glad it exists.
Back in 1981, the original London production could boast it all – the music, the vocals, the acting, it was damn good. The show is so obscenely popular for a reason. The only thing that ever irked me about it was the lyrics. Listed in the “light poetry” section on Wikipedia, the playful verses T. S. Eliot once wrote for his godchildren gained a certain level of darkish absurdity when first performed altogether on stage. They sound bizarre but it all depends on the context. What now stands out as stunningly misshapen in the movie was perfectly fine in the musical. The nonsensical silliness with the undertones of macabre that worked wonders in the London recording was soon lost. The musical went to Broadway and downhill, full dumb onstage and full bonkers onscreen.
The story that I’m seeing now is an abomination. As minutes go by, confusion deepens. Here come the cockroaches, the dark unidentified figures crawling on the walls, straight out of a horror movie. This is like someone’s bad trip. How, why, who was it made for? The feeble attempts to insert an intelligible plot into this carnival of madness keep failing, the story has no heartbeat. Like the Frankenstein Monster, it lives despite being essentially dead. It goes on and on, uneven, with moments of relative calm followed by yet another burst of the inexplicable. Victoria is forced to be the main character and drags the plot around like a dead limb. The other cats just spook me. It’s frightening. Grizabella’s snot is overwhelming. Bustopher Jones is suddenly, flamboyantly gay, except for in the Russian subtitles of which I have a glimpse or two, then look away in disgust. The translation lives its own twisted life I don’t care for. The horror is aplenty without it.
The moist, overly emotional faces, the sizes shifting, the breasts. Vaguely I feel that what’s going on with the breasts is wrong but it’s the ears that unsettle me the most. Then I’m hit in the face with the first joke about castration. Far too many gags based on reproductive organs follow considering the unnatural creatures onscreen don’t have any. All the attempts at cat-themed jokes give me chills. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser act more like a couple than a pair of siblings which adds a hint of incest to the brew. The fact that they bring back the original jazzy version of my favourite song is refreshing but is beside the point now. This movie is making me very, very happy for all the wrong reasons.
When Dame Judi Dench appears, I spot the wedding ring on her finger – jackpot! It’s the first undercooked copy retched up by the studio in their gluttonous haste. Here it has never been updated, the CGI’s in all its fucked up glory. I feel blessed. The close-ups seem too much, the wide shots seem too much, the visuals are hallucinatory and I’m lost in the uncanny valley of fear. With Dench, new depths of scary open up. Old Deuteronomy is horrifyingly sexual and it shouldn’t be like that. Then, the Jellicle Ball happens. Unnatural, ungodly thing. This, I imagine, is what life’s like on heavy drugs. Things are happening too fast. I think of Dante’s Purgatory. Are they all dead? The dancers, the body horror. Did I just see Idris Elba naked? Is it a drug orgy in a PG-rated movie? I don’t understand what’s happening but it’s giving me mystical powers. Now clairvoyant, I can see Tom Hooper’s future career or rather the absence of it. As the ball concludes, at last I understand there is no god. It’s a relief.
Indescribable things follow and it’s time for Mr. Mistoffelees, the Original Conjuring cat. I love him dearly but only when his real name is Wayne Sleep, the Original Performing human. In the 1981 musical his song is one of the best, especially since I keep hearing “he can play any trick with a cock” instead of “cork” each time I listen. The character fascinates me. For all I know, he may not even be a mister – the lyrics hint at a possible case of mistaken identity as in the end he “produced seven kittens right out of a hat” which to me sounds a lot like giving birth. The poem is playful and silly but the West End song ends in such a macabre phantom-of-the-opera-esque way it sounds more like Mr. Mephistopheles. I’m thinking that maybe the darkness has always been there and finally surfaced in the movie to devour all. Onscreen, the once brilliant song is utterly fucked. All of them are. The writers try to force the role of Victoria’s love interest upon Mr. Mistoffelees but like the rest it doesn’t work.
After this botched up number the most hellish sequence in the history of cinema transpires. I finally manage to pinpoint the genre – it’s horror. Sir Ian McKellen aka Gus The Theatre cat aka Asparagus is responsible for the most of it. Sir Ian McKellen snarling, Sir Ian McKellen hissing, Sir Ian McKellen licking something dismally in a dark corner. When the boat horror ends it feels like it’s already been too long but the story crawls further on. Now, an uncomfortably close close-up of Dame Judi persists, looming. I think she’s singing at me, I’m not sure of anything anymore. “Beyond any meaning” she utters, that phrase sticks with me. I fail to grasp the rest. I see light, I see Trafalgar square. What’s happening onscreen feels weirdly and appropriately religious. Like life itself, it doesn’t make sense. The credits roll at last and I realize the scariest part of the whole experience – my five fellow viewers never laughed.
Now, how do I go on with my day? I don’t know. I don’t care. People are passing me by – can they detect the mad glint in my eye? Have they seen what I’ve seen? It is like drugs, the giggles won’t cease. I try to hide them under my scarf, pop into a pie shop, can’t master the names of the fillings and just blurt out something barely intelligible with a sickly smile. In the metro an old lady in a gray fur coat and hat sits down in front of me and I expect her to sing but she doesn’t. Someone leaves a bag under a seat, a woman presses the intercom to inform the driver but keeps talking before her turn. The driver cannot hear her. She keeps doing it over and over again, the driver’s voice starts to tremble. She doesn’t understand. It feels like the movie has seeped into the fabric of reality. Outside in the street, a grim-looking lady suddenly speaks as I pass her by – come, buy fresh beer. She only speaks to me. She knows. I step over a used syringe in the dirt. I need to be in the comfort of my home as soon as possible.
“Who’s a good, real cat” I mumble repeatedly while vigorously petting Manon in the kitchen. I’m still riding the high, a feeling I’ve never experienced before – of horror mixed with elation and sick glee. For some incomprehensible reason an Alan Cumming song I heard years ago pops up in my head. “Taylor, the Latte Boy, bring me java, bring me joy!” I think it’s about a sexy barista. For a minute it saves me from the perverted movie version of Magical Mr. Mistoffelees but then the horror returns, obscuring all thought. There’s asparagus on my kitchen table – I’ve never tried it before and was planning to roast it today. Now it only reminds me of the impenetrable darkness of Sir Ian. I’ll never know what it’d taste like without Gus the Theatre cat in the back of my mind. Nothing will ever be the same.
On the eve of the screening I was forced to look at myself, to ponder on good and evil. My life is a joke, my actions questionable. I have no idea where I’m going. I do things without thinking and sometimes it’s somewhat fun but not for long. Is there a point to anything at all? What does my heart desire? Do I even have one? Does love exist? Do I need five children and a lawnmower? Strangely, the fucked up, twisted thing I just saw gives me the answer: it simply doesn’t matter. Some things are perceived as good, some things are considered bad yet they can still bring you pure undiluted joy, and some things are just beyond any meaning. Life doesn’t make sense and it shouldn’t.
There’s a special CATS episode on the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast because of course there is. Someday I want to listen to that. As for everything else, who the fuck cares.