Cats, Cult and Subculture


When the first trailer for Cats hit, the overriding question people had was “who on Earth is the target audience for this thing?”

And to answer, I’m afraid I must raise a hand. The trailer made me want to see the film; and when I saw the film, I enjoyed it. So, I suppose that makes me the target audience. Pleased to meet you.

This clearly puts me in a minority, as Cats has received a whipping from critics and a bombing at the box office. But there’s been speculation that we may not have seen the last of it – that Cats might follow in the footsteps of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, dismissed upon release only to become the centre of a snowballing cult fandom. Personally, I don’t think Cats has bottled the zeitgeist quite the way Rocky Horror did, but could it still end up as a cult classic? That’s a question that got me thinking…

Even though I enjoyed Cats on the whole, one weakness stuck out to me: the film is front-loaded. The opening number (“Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”) is the strongest part; afterwards I was waiting for another sequence to top or even match it, but nothing quite managed. The sequence opens with a woman throwing a tatty sack out of her house; the bag turns out to contain protagonist Victoria, and a bevy of other cats come out to investigate the newcomer, introducing her (and the audience) to the alleyways that comprise the cats’ diminutive otherworld. All the while, they sing of the various species that inhabit this realm (“Practical cats, dramatical cats/Pragmatical cats, fanatical cats/Oratorical cats, delphioracle cats” etc) and the roles that cats have played throughout human history (“Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant?” “Were you there when the pharaohs commissioned the Sphinx?”) It’s a well-done bit of fantasy filmmaking, one that makes literal the imaginary feline world evoked by the stage show and the original T. S. Eliot poems without – in my view – sacrificing their charm.

It’s also a sequence that is emblematic of the film’s fate upon release. I hardly need to point out the connotations of a weird CGI cat-person being unambiguously rejected by a human character (the film’s sole representative of the mundane world) but ultimately finding acceptance amongst other weird CGI cat-people.

There’s no shortage of misfit narratives in film, or other media. They appeal to us on a deep level, since everybody – no matter what social strata we might have ended up in as adults – was, at one point in life, the kid who didn’t fit in. But misfit narratives that themselves end up as cultural misfits are a narrower field, and perhaps find their most receptive audiences amongst subcultural groups, from Goths to gays.

Only time will tell whether Cats will ever enmesh itself as a cult film. But given its status as misfit-squared narrative, I wouldn’t bet against the film finding a subcultural following of one sort or anothre.

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