Cats: Beyond Any Meaning

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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.

“The Hellbound Fun” – A Hellraiser review

“To William, who doesn’t want a taco”

by Dina Levina

For reasons rooted deeply, we are taught from an early age the notion that pleasure is wicked. Candy is not dandy, it rots your teeth and innards. Masturbation makes you blind. Dirty words make Jesus weep. Say your prayers, have more boiled carrots. Suffer. Perpetually intertwined by the simple logic of our nerve endings, pain and pleasure bind up in a complicated knot with a little help from our family, friends and neighbors. Still, the more illicit things get, the more desirable they tend to become. Such was the case when a mystery man presented a shabby self-recorded cassette to my parents who could never hide bad things well.

The tight tangle of joy and suffering is apparent in horror stories which combine the two openly, so we are pleased by being scared. Such a tale the forbidden tape contained. Even better – two tales at once. I was about seven when a wall had cracked and, along with the intrusion of Western fizzes and sweetmeats, an illegal movie rental manifested itself in my post-Soviet hometown, bringing to its dwellers photocopied lists of movies with titles and genres only. One had to pick carefully, else risking a memorable viewing of something like Jack Frost (1997), where a wayward Snowman violates a girl with his conveniently displaced carrot. Yet some of the faceless rectangular boxes contained wonders, as the one with “Hellraiser I. Hellraiser II” printed crookedly on its soiled sticker soon attested.

It was the perfect time to watch them. My mind was wide open. Not scared but rather fascinated by what was unfolding on the compact TV screen, I absorbed every second of it with my very guts. The puzzle of what was happening to the characters consumed me, the unexplainable was gladly accepted. Two decades later I understand why it worked and still works so well – the story was made with love, a love that is contagious, incurable, permanent. The kind of love an Engineer passes onto its creation to install fear and awe for ages to go.

The story looks simple but works wonders for there’s an intricate universe behind it. Clive Barker translated his written work to the restricted language of movies well, creating a self-sufficing piece, the atmosphere perfectly intact. Like with every translation, some things are lost, some things are gained. While Frank falls wanking to the floor (a Bowie allusion?) in chapter one, his face is being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle on the same floor in the movie, because time and ratings allow the second and not the first. The one essential component from The Hellbound Heart that I miss is the smell, and if cinemas can be equipped to convey all written odors, the audiences will be in for a queer treat – who knew that cenobites smelled of vanilla?

                The setting is a classic worthy of the Grimm Brothers – a clueless dad, an evil stepmother and a relatively innocent daughter arrive at an old house where Evil awaits. Unbeknownst to them, Dad’s rotten brother had a peculiar encounter with a quartet of jaded but well-dressed demonic priests of pain not long ago, and when some blood is spilled on the floorboards of the room where he died, the fairy-tale begins.

 For the most part the story is driven by the stepmother, Julia, who has a relatable quest. When the movie title had to be picked, one of the female crew members suggested “What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck”, and was completely on point. To regain her briefly enjoyable (and somewhat censored by the producers) sex life with Frank, Julia kills a bunch of random men and fatally betrays her boring husband, but is herself deceived by her reincarnated lover. Julia happens to be the only truly well-written character in the movie – the fact that doesn’t take anything away from it. The rest work perfectly in their two dimensions. Julia has a ghost, an aim that is taboo, and a load of most bizarre obstacles.

All the tribal horrors can be found here: a no-sex marriage, adultery, inbreeding (uncle Frank with his phallic pocket knife is incest personified) and dead parents of all kinds, stepparents gone wrong and the inevitable destruction of the whole family by its lousy member. Each scene is well-written, each conflict grips you by the balls. Combine it with all the details that broaden the context (the grasshopper-eating hobo, whom I love, is an immediate reference to the Bible, and there are more fun things to find), the special effects that are truly special, considering the low budget, the creepy sound and the beautiful score by Christopher Young, and you get a perfect movie. Julia’s 80-style makeup and hairdos add subtly to the horror. The cenobite scenes are visceral (perhaps that’s how square, middle-aged people envision S&M parties) and they get etched into your memory so you can hear the teeth chatter long after the TV has been safely turned off.

Part II is far from its predecessor’s perfection, with no solid theme or plot in sight. The Lemarchand’s box remains the only three-dimensional character, the Snow White is mentioned openly, and though probably intended as a nod to the original, several scenes look second-hand (Julia chasing Kirsty between two walls in the naughty dimension mirrors the endearing Engineer  scene from the first movie; the final skin twist is silly). Where in the first part there’s a heartfelt tale of people who want to have a fun sex life but fail weirdly, the second only has its ashes for a carcass, and everything falls apart with no spine to get attached to. Doctors are creepy. Hospital security is a mess. Mute girls are mysterious. Cenobites think they’ve been here forever but they are wrong. The Evil is mighty, no one really knows shit, and everything is a fucking puzzle.

The only thing that keeps me really happy during these ninety seven minutes is the hilarity of the freshly made doctor-cenobite – talking in cliché doctor phrases, dragging the perfect first line of dialogue out of the previously mute Tiffany. “And how are we feeling today?” screeches the good doctor before drilling into someone’s skull with a specially equipped tentacle, and I thank him for that. But there’s still no good story, and for me part two is forever a curious afterbirth.

When I first watched them twenty years ago, the conjoined twins on a single greasy VHS, I mistook the teaser at the end of part two for the beginning of a third movie (with no more free space to record onto, Hellraiser II had ended abruptly before the final titles). This was a happy delusion, for as the countless sequels show, the real story had ended here. There is, of course, a faceless number three, the obligatory part about cenobites in space, a movie that was just a random script with Pinhead unnaturally stuffed into it, and many, many more I dared not explore because some doors had better stay shut.

Each fairy-tale has its moral, and some of Charles Perrault’s even have two, at which I pondered while reading the book that should’ve been forbidden for kids but wasn’t. So pick your moral. Sweet things can kill you, sometimes faster than you may have suspected. Sex is bad. Grasshoppers are nutritious. Bad guys come back and good ones don’t. Suffering can be a pleasure. As for the second part, the moral is quite simple: one should always dispose of an old mattress in a safe, responsible way.

Donmar Warehouse—THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1994)

mi0002173465Review by Graham Warnken

Assigned by Dina Levina

I knew Brecht by name before this, but had never got around to reading any of his plays. Based on this I need to, though. This album is hitting aaaaaalll my musical theatre buttons, and I’m kicking myself for being so late with the review that I have to keep it short.

Snappy, Gothic orchestration? Check. Revisionist satire on capitalism in Ye Olde Europe? Check. The word “shit” appearing a lot? Check. There’s this aura of muck and dirt that hangs around the whole thing, and it’s just so much fun. This particular English translation is pretty obviously period-inaccurate, but for this sort of thing it’s more important that the spirit is gotten across, which the numerous swear words and sex jokes do admirably.

I can’t speak to the wider story/satire, as I have yet to read the libretto, but I’ll be remedying that posthaste. Probably seeking out other cast recordings, too—I love the vernacular/vulgar approach this one takes but am interested in finding older versions as well. Especially as this kind of modernizing approach to translation drives me insane when it’s employed for books. 😛