I am so grateful that my first experience of the CATS movie was with someone who went in with an open and generous heart. And that we lucked out with an audience of people who were there to actually see it. I was, at first, resistant to the aesthetic and alienated by some cinematic choices, but as I adjusted to its sensibility, as the movie and I, mutually, found our footing, I was willing to let it take me to a magical, whimsical, joyous place.
My second viewing was both dismal and infuriating. Again, I was there with someone who was open to the experience, but the audience was one of the most disheartening I have ever encountered in my life. The laughs and heckling started immediately and never let up, even when there wasn’t anything particularly odd or funny happening on screen.
If this had been a genuine response, I might have appreciated it. I’ve been in a theatre with people who suddenly, communally, found something weird or hilarious or confounding. That can be a magical experience. But this wasn’t a pure, organic response; it was cynical and corrupted. Those people were not seeing, processing and reacting; they were poised and ready to find it ridiculous. And they had been very well conditioned to enter the theatre so far above the material that it had no hope of reaching them.
I’m sure there are some people for whom CATS will never quite work, regardless of popular or critical response. Some people just don’t like musicals. Some people don’t like concept musicals in particular. Some people will find cat-humanoids off-putting. And I get that. Not everyone will find CATS as beautiful and moving as I eventually did, but they should have the opportunity to discover it for themselves, on their own terms, without feeling belittled. Unfortunately, the vast majority of reviews have not encouraged any free thinking. They have been cynical, mean-spirited and propagandistic.
There were brief moments throughout the screening when the audience was quiet—either tired of laughing or genuinely compelled by whatever was happening on screen. Either way, this sent up alarm bells. Whenever there was any danger of investing, of making themselves vulnerable, somebody would let out a loud burp or a sneer (in response to absolutely nothing what-so-ever) just to remind the mob that they are not supposed to actually watch CATS. That audience was not finding humour in something silly, it was manically scrambling to create the laughable train wreck everyone had read about.
And yes, I put a lot of blame on reviewers specifically because, unlike an average audience member, they have a responsibility. They are supposed to help people to appreciate art by making a conscious effort to contextualize it, perhaps even unpacking their own cynicism to do so. Reviewers don’t have to like everything they see and they are certainly not required to say nice things they don’t mean, but neither should they resort to sensationalistic jeering and make a sport of cheap ridicule. Whatever happened to scholarship? Little attempt has been made to acknowledge the odd history of the source material (poems and stage play) or to appreciate the audacity of realizing meta-theatrical convention on film.
Well done, reviewers: You’ve helped to lessen our humanity at the cinema. I, however, am fighting to keep mine, no matter how unsophisticated my enthusiasm for the CATS movie may seem to you. You can mock CATS. You can mock me. You can fill theatres with jaded sheep. But you will not take my heart from me.