The Year in Cats

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, and I do believe in taste, but I also believe in context.

Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who's contributed to publications such as The New York Times, Pitchfork, and The Nation.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here.

As we sped to Oak Park, the grayscale features of the Chicagoland suburbs blurring past the window, I didn’t regard my nausea as anything other than an unavoidable side effect of keeping up with Twitter. Only when I closed my eyes and registered the feeling spreading upwards through my arms and down to my toes did I consider I wasn’t just carsick. My health always seems to dip around the holidays, for reasons I’ve never understood; the plane touches down in Chicago, and my body—mostly okay, beyond the encroaching pains and degradations of adulthood—instantly readies for bed rest, now that my mother can nurse me back to the living. And for reasons more explainable—arrogance, the still-youthful belief that nothing can ever hurt me—whenever I sense the creep of illness I barrel ahead, double down, push through to take care of whatever it is I’m trying to do: meeting a friend for drinks, shopping for Christmas presents—or seeing Cats.

It didn’t start as a bit. This I promise. Over the last decade the concept of “doing it for the lulz” may have upstreamed from oxygen-deprived 4chan slang into rictus-grinned political messaging, but off the internet, intentionally wasting your time to amuse some unseen audience of dipshits is even more exquisitely pointless. My mother, her partner, and I would not have purchased tickets to the 2:45 p.m. Christmas Eve showing of Cats if we were not genuinely curious to see what was up. Despite opening just four days earlier, already Cats had accrued a reputation as “the worst movie ever,” which meant that at the very least it would be “pretty interesting.” Oscar season meant every other film in theaters was either ponderously joyless or Bombshell, and we’d already seen the new Star Wars, so we loaded into the Prius and made for the suburbs, where the ticket prices are cheaper and the popcorn refills free of charge.

Perhaps this would have a boring ending if I’d resigned myself to passing out in the theater and requesting an emergency transfusion of chicken noodle soup upon the credit roll. However, I was also stubbornly insistent about getting stoned, no matter how bad I felt upon exiting the car. The miracle of modern technology allowed for a quick vape or six outside the theater, and I took advantage once my mother and her partner disappeared for a short walk. I will be transparent: The weed did not improve my health. My decision to inhale more of it in spite of this appears, from the present, ill-advised. But sobriety seemed like a deal-breaker given what I knew about Cats, even if I was nervous about the THC concentrate commingling with the flu brewing in my system.

Like Twin Peaks or soccer, the Andrew Lloyd Webber play upon which the film is based was another piece of culture first passed to me through osmosis, where for years I understood it was a thing people cared about before ever becoming personally interested. But it really would not have mattered unless I’d come in as a superfan because Cats was defiantly illogical, the CGI graphics lurid and sickening, the script entirely incoherent. Granted, the weed did not improve my cognition, but for the uninitiated: The movie centers around a tribe of cats called “Jellicle cats,” who are about to attend “the Jellicle ball,” where one of the cats will vie for the chance to be reborn in a new, happier life. The movie opens with a song called “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” in which the cats attempt to explain their modus operandi—a perfect opportunity to clarify what exactly a Jellicle cat is, except the lyrics don’t really differentiate between regular cats and this ostensibly special brand.

Maybe if you’re a theater kid this kind of straight-ahead logic makes sense—duh, yes, Jellicle cats, obviously—but normal people require plot, characters, motivations. The Rum Tum Tugger (played, miraculously, by Jason Derulo) is a curious cat, you say? Okay, but…………… why?

Not to recap Cats, which you can do on Wikipedia, or in many YouTube videos narrated by guys with handles like @TheSarcasticMovieBastard. To sum up all that summing up, it didn’t make sense. But it definitely wasn’t the worst movie ever, just a kaleidoscopic miasma of outrageous costuming and Broadway balladry and Taylor Swift that prompted a solid two-star rating from my mother. We had a good time, truly, because of how silly it was—real humans were paid millions of dollars to spend hundreds of millions of dollars generating this shitty-looking feline fantasia, an indictment of Hollywood and capitalism and perhaps the very concept of creativity itself, if you want to go that far.

Afterwards we ventured back to Chinatown for noodle soup and bubble tea, then drove home to catch an hour of a different Star Wars on television before bidding farewell to the night, so that we might wake up well-rested on Christmas. But it did not end there. By this point the flu had incubated in my body for several hours, during which I’d unhelpfully pumped it full of cannabinoid resin, salt, and sugar, and as I fell asleep I crossed over from “might be catching something” to “definitively, positively fucked up.” The night stretched into an abyssal dreamstate, where my body degenerated into sheer exhaustion without ever shutting down altogether, and my mind looped the same feverish thoughts for hours on end. Now the bit, if there ever was one, doubled back on me, because the only thing my clammy brain could lock onto was Cats. Practical cats, dramatical cats, Jellicle cats, all the stars and sweeties of this movie prowling around my subconscious, their lyrical dialogue Moebius stripping into glossolalic lunacy.

The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat, I thought, over and over, as though I were reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Jellicles can and Jellicles do, I considered the next night, as my illness accelerated on Christmas itself, sending me to the couch right after dinner. Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity, I contemplated the night after that, my fevered brain ardently debating the claim—is there anyone like Macavity?—with itself. And so forth, until the fever burned itself out once I got back to New York just in time for New Year’s Eve, upon which I realized something startling and horrifying and also pretty hilarious, given how this had started out: I could no longer stop thinking about Cats, period, even without this flu-induced biological imperative.

I went back to Wikipedia and re-researched what I’d missed in the theater; I looked up the soundtrack, and finding the new EDM-laced renditions underwhelming, went to the original Broadway recording; I even pulled out the 1998 stage performance, ripped to YouTube, and watched the songs individually, memorizing the melodies. Something had happened, though I wasn’t sure what. My girlfriend Jen, a former theater person, suspected I was fucking with her. I was not a theater person, or a musical person, but here I was professing an earnest attachment to the most theater-ass, musical-ass play in the world. She recalled a time in high school when she bore witness to a group of kids performing “Jellicle Songs” and was overwhelmed by how much it sucked, a value judgment that had not repealed itself 18 years later.

Fair enough, but consider this, I said, pointing to her hazel tabby cat Helen, whom I’d unofficially adopted as our relationship progressed: You know how in Cats (she did not know how in Cats) there’s a cat named Skimbleshanks, an orange tabby who keeps the trains running in perfect order? How that’s super cute, and oh my God, wouldn’t it be so cute if Helen ran the trains? “Helen is / the railway cat / the cat of the railway trains,” I sang, adopting the lyrics to Skimbleshanks’ theme song. She laughed, somehow finding this cute, before pointing out Helen is too aloof to run the trains. Aha, I thought, sensing an opening.

So off we went to see Cats, near the end of January. The atmosphere this time was different. By now the film’s bad reputation had intensified, as the actual actors had begun repudiating it in interviews and the fallow box office returns formally declared it a bomb. In spite of this, or more likely because of this, the theater was semi-full. Our screening took place at one of those fancy theaters equipped with plushy reclining seats where alcohol is sold in the lobby, and from the nervous tittering that greeted the credits, everyone there was adequately sloshed and waiting to see what the fuss was about.

One of the pleasures of companionship is seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and though I had appreciated Cats the first time, the full effect didn’t take until I was seated next to Jen, watching her lose her shit at the sight of Judi Dench, wearing a fur coat and pointy ears, materializing through a foggy alley with a very serious look on her face. Look at this iconic actress, trapped between Idris Elba’s glossy codpiece and Rebel Wilson’s dried-up punchlines and wondering how all those hours logged playing Lady Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company culminated in this but nonetheless giving it her all because she’s a professional and a dame, don’t forget it. Surely I’d registered it in my initial screening, but the impact was magnified as Jen’s joy sluiced into me as though I were receiving the Holy Spirit.

Her laughter seemed to unlock the movie for everyone else in the room. Reticent chuckling gave way to festive uproar, a kind of communal psychic understanding that we were all here, together, in Cats. After Dench’s still-uncorrected human hands softened us up, Jen fundamentally could not handle when Ian McKellen, another consummate professional, popped up wearing full whiskers: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,” she screamed, and I mean really screamed, prompting the entire theater to collapse into delirium. Later, she told me she had no memory of her reaction. The moment, and the movie, was simply too much. (I must clarify that Jen absolutely hated Cats, our good time aside, and I accepted this though I continued to sing “Skimbleshanks” around the apartment until… well, I’m still doing it.)

Cats ended up being the last new movie we caught in theaters before quarantine went into effect. Before the pandemic, each new movie we saw served as a marker for the year. We fell for each other at Booksmart, when we realized all those jokes pandering to limpid Daily Show sensibilities aroused mutual disdain; stayed up late for an early screening of Parasite, standing in a line that stretched through the West Village; caught The Irishman opening weekend at one of Manhattan’s oldest theaters, and indulged ourselves afterwards with a steak dinner. We aren’t people who glibly reference “the before times,” but like many we took for granted our ability to just go to the movies, before this yawning period where many aspects of human behavior have been put on pause. Had we known it would be donezos after March, maybe we would’ve gotten our act together to see First Cow.

There is some silly luck here, in a movie as objectively terrible—I concede the point, because I’m not a lunatic—as Cats serving as such a stupid final excursion to a movie theater until potentially 2022, pending the status of future lockdowns and the vaccine. It also seems fitting, given my fever-abetted introduction to this singularly bizarre cultural product that actually feels like a bad dream. This year, time has compressed and warped in a way in which few people, myself included, are really equipped to deal with. Often Jen and I bring up a memory we believe to be from a certain month, only to realize it was actually March, or June, or January, or who even knows. Stories abound of people declaring their 2020 birthdays unofficial, as they’re not yet ready to signal their aging during a period when nothing much seems to have progressed. Stasis is not meant to be mandated, regardless of its medical necessity or our collective willingness to do the right thing, and the body itches anticipating how many more months may pass before a real reopening of our horizons.

Nonetheless there have been small achievements, victories that humble me to consider, because any reminder of life’s generative potential in these strictured conditions keeps me open to what the future might hold. Jen and I moved in together, about which I can’t say enough good things and so will stop before you think of me as just another happy asshole. I lost my job and discovered it wasn’t the end of the world—something that did not feel true in the moment, when I was dazed by the idea of being without an income during the pandemic. Helen started falling asleep on me, and now I spend hours every week wondering what’s going on in her animal brain, something I hadn’t prepared for when I fell in love with her owner. It seems potentially callous to meditate on the upside of a year that has been unspeakably cruel to so many, but to account only for the negative would do a disservice to everyone else who has, for their own reasons, also chosen to keep going.

And while the bit, I suppose, rests in the idea I’m now a Cats superfan, when my enjoyment tops out at “had a good time,” I really do genuinely like it for reasons I’m still sorting through beyond “sometimes you just love stupid bullshit” or some banal fealty to camp. I like the music, for one. I like the idea of this alternate society where all these cats have carved out different roles and relationships, for another. I like the image of a cat running the trains, obviously. And I also like how dumbly whimsical it is, despite the pathos in torch burners like “Memory,” how by design it can’t be taken too seriously because it is, after all, a play/movie about talking cats. Enjoying it feels like an almost empowering rejection of all the many things I’ve been taught to regard as worthwhile, another victory inasmuch as it enables me to better move through the world, capable of greeting new things on their own terms.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, and I do believe in taste, but I also believe in context. Perhaps my interest would’ve eventually faded if Jen and I had never seen it together, but in this world we did, and its nonsense meaning has only been magnified by this nonsense year in which I and millions of others have searched for stability amidst harrowing current events whose literal and existential ramifications compound every day—not just the election, but the psychic death by a thousand breaking push notifications; not just the countless lives lost to the pandemic, but the institutional and social failure to staunch future bleeding, or grapple with what it means to live in a world that will never care enough about the dead. Everything happens so much, and nothing seems to matter, and somewhere in between these never-ending randomly generated phenomena is the ongoing attempt to live a normal, and even good, life, on whatever terms are possible under current circumstances.

This is what Cats makes me think of, somehow, because sometimes a shitty-looking feline fantasia is what provides unexpected pleasure when everything else seems to be collapsing. A small lesson, if there is one, is that you can’t entirely control what pulls the levers in your brain—quite literally, since it was a flu that first brought me here. Still, I don’t want to exaggerate too much: I did not become a theater person in the months following, nor did I even watch Cats for the third time when it hit HBO Max, though I joked about it maybe 500 times.

But other possibilities were opened up. In the summer, not long before Jen and I moved in together, we cycled through movies we might watch, and settled on Cabaret, another musical I’d always written off. There was nothing particularly special about this evening; it was just another spent inside, trying to do our part by doing nothing, as millions of others had done, and which would happen dozens of times after this, the once-normal potential of a night out once again winnowed to a single room, the two of us together, looking to try something new. Would we have gotten to Cabaret before all this? Maybe, maybe not. On this night we did, and it was, I’m happy to say, completely delightful, and much better than Cats.

Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who's contributed to publications such as The New York Times, Pitchfork, and The Nation.