By Luc Le - August 12, 2022

The first time I watched CATS was on January 1st, 2020. 

I was terribly hungover (as is typical the day after New Year’s Eve) and my best friend had just hours earlier puked an entire bottle of my parents’ terrible homemade wine (no, I will not be providing more context for this) into, rather inexplicably, his laundry hamper. There we were in the theater, $20 popcorn in hand, not knowing much about the film beyond what we’d heard from the reviews, which all seemed to include some combination of the words “bewildering” and “horny.” 

What followed inside that (oddly packed) movie theater was more akin to a religious experience than a cinematic one. As one, we gasped as feline Rebel Wilson unzipped her skin and swallowed cockroaches with the faces of children whole. As one, we screamed in terror as cat Jason Derulo screamed “MILK!” and tried to suck toes. As one, we attempted in vain to hide our tears as cat Jennifer Hudson, snot running rampant down her face, belted out one of the most inexplicably heartbreaking solos ever put to film. And as one, we stumbled out of the theater in a dazed silence, trying in vain to comprehend the magnitude of what we’d just witnessed. Finally, I spoke.

    “Well,” I said. “At least the rest of 2020 won’t be worse than that.” 

The second time I watched CATS was January 2nd, 2020. 

I had basically dragged my friend Peighton to see the film, partly because I wanted to see her reaction to it and partly because apparently the only thing I enjoy more than awful movies is making other people suffer through them as well. Midway through, I looked over to see her frantically stuffing a CBD-infused chocolate bar into her mouth. She looked at me, eyes wide with terror. 

    “I can’t be sober for this,” she whispered. 

As we walked out of the theater, I asked her what she thought of the movie.

    “I don’t know,” she said. “I closed my eyes for most of it so I wouldn’t have it in my memory.” 


CATS is, by most metrics (Rotten Tomatoes, IMBD scores, the opinions of those of us blessed with the gift of sight), an absolute fucking catastrophe. The “plot” almost entirely consists of horrible uncanny-valley cat people singing songs about themselves and then being zapped out of existence by horrible naked furry Idris Elba, half of the CGI is just straight-up unfinished, and the last ten(!) minutes of the film is just horrible cat Dame Judi Dench monologuing to the camera about why cats are not dogs. It is genuinely unbelievable that a major studio decided that this film was okay to release for actual people to watch. It is an affront to God and nature itself. 

So why do I love it so much? 

Trying to determine the reasons for one’s aesthetic values -- determining why we love what we love — is, in my experience, quite a difficult exercise. Love itself resists description and logic — that’s why we have poets, after all: to try, through some alchemy, so put the unexplainable into language. We may be able to give reasons for why we love something or someone —  the story has great images of nature, we might say, or they have wonderful hazel eyes, but rarely can we explain these in a way that crosses the barrier from superficiality. Why do images of nature connect with us so strongly? What is it about hazel eyes? It’s hard to pin down (unless you’re Freud, in which case it probably has to do with one’s attraction to their mother). It’s just something about them, we might say. It’s the je ne sais quoi (translation, French: “I don’t know what”). What kind of art appeals to me? In the immortal (and legally nonsensical) words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart as he attempted to define pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it.”

All of this is to say that I’m really not sure why I enjoy CATS -- or, for that matter, anything that I enjoy. This is a rather unfortunate realization, given that I’ve spent over two years as an arbiter of what pieces are selected to grace the pages of Spectrum — you’d think I’d know what I value by now. Yet looking back over the films, television shows, books, games, gesamtkunstwerks that I’ve loved over the years, no clear pattern emerges. I’ve fallen in love with unfathomably pretentious international art films (Pasolini’s Edipo Re, anybody?), but I’m also the kind of person that has just finished their umpteenth rewatch of New Girl.  I claim to crave originality and hate art that feels like rubber-stamped products, yet I’ve seen nearly every one of Disney’s Marvel movies, in all of their comfortable corporatism. And time and again I’ve proven that I’m a sommelier for literal, actual garbage (see above). Perhaps part of the difficulty comes because of the simple fact that people themselves are varied and contradictory. To attempt to narrow down a person to a set of aesthetic values runs the risk of simplifying a person far beyond accurate description. What’s that cliche Whitman quote again?  “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself/I am large, I contain multitudes.

But let’s try. That is the assignment, after all. Why do I love CATS? It certainly isn’t because of its use of language, given that large parts of it are in literal gibberish. It’s not because of the music, or cinematography, or plot —  the quality of which range from ineffective to nightmare inducing. And it’s certainly not because it is perhaps the most corporate movie ever made, itself an adaptation of a legendary Broadway musical, stuffed with stars from Taylor Swift to Idris Elba, armed budget in the hundreds of millions, an experienced director of musicals and a Christmastime release date designed to push it into the spotlight. 

It is, I think, because despite everything that surrounds it, despite all of the meddling and sanitizing that so often plagues storytelling on this scale, CATS is never under any illusions about what it is — despite the fact that what it is, for the length of its excruciatingly long runtime, is hairy and terrifying and incredibly, irrevocably horny.  CATS isn’t trying to play it safe, to moderate its weirdness for the mass audience Universal Pictures counted on it to attract. It is authentic at all costs — but especially at all costs. And I think there’s something to be said about pieces of art like that — the ones that refuse convention, categorization, and marketability, the ones that approach storytelling and language from an angle that nobody asked for. And yes, pursuing authenticity over all else does occasionally result in a car crash — as they say, sometimes you shoot for the moon and end up in Waco, Texas. But in the fiery wreck that is CATS I think you can just about make out, amongst the fur and felines, the purest form of artistic visualization, unsullied by corporate pressure or common sense or good taste or shame. These are the kinds of pieces that I want Spectrum to publish (well, maybe not CATS per se) — the ones in which I feel as though I can see the author’s face in between the lines. To me, that matters more than a preference of genre or language. Authenticity is, like the notion of love itself, transcendental, difficult to pin down or give shape to until we see its reflection staring back at us from the words on the page — until we feel it. How do I know what pieces I like? I know it when I see it. And what I see, in the strange, the absurd, and the wholly, uncompromisingly original, is something beautiful. 

Related topics