Saturday, January 25, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

So we now have to acclimate to front-runner Bernie. Whatever. If Bernie is the nominee, unless he starts blaming groups of people for our problems other than the rich and perhaps the Religious Right, I will support him to the letter of the crossed t and you would never have known that I ever hated him. Even if there's a Michael Bloomberg third-party candidacy (and if Bernie wins the nomination, there very well might be), I will support any Democratic nominee to the bitter end who doesn't scapegoat anybody but the relatively more privileged, and that end will probably be bitter indeed. 
Bernie's policies are mostly fine, insofar as they have any nuance at all, I agree with 80-90% of them, and many of them are closer to my beliefs than they are to his most fervent admirers, who are well to the left of his campaign. If Bernie appears to have a chance of winning right now, that appearance is very deceptive. Once the battalion of dubious quotes and interviews appear all over the media of Bernie's support of America's enemies, every swing voter who is mulling a Bernie vote will be scared away, the tragic irony being that no American President has ever gone further into the arms of America's enemies than our current President - it's not even close, but no amount of Democratic spending will be able to countermand the private PAC-money of billionaires whom Bernie correctly points out are choking the American system, and they will bombard American mental space into submission to their agenda. 
And even if Bernie were able to keep himself in swing voter's warm feelings, what then? There remains the problem of a Bloomberg Third Party Candidacy. Look at your TV, look at youtube. Bloomberg is not at any debate, but he's bombarding the airwaves unceasingly, and is spending more on TV than all the other Democratic candidates put together (that's true, look it up). Why is that? He's clearly gearing up for a third party run. If it's Biden, he obviously won't do it. If it's Warren, he might do it, but he might not, and he knows that it's sensible not to, and his whole campaign is based on doing the sensible thing. But if it's Bernie, he probably will because he knows there's a path to victory through the American center, who is rightly disgusted by Trump and perhaps wrongly disgusted by Bernie Sanders.
And even if the impossible happened, and Bernie won, what then? A Republican congress accusing him of being a traitor to the American people? There's literally an interview circulating around the internet of Bernie on Cuban Television in the 80s, criticizing America and praising Castro. That's probably one of a dozen like it from that era. Everything we've correctly accused Trump of, they will accuse Bernie of. Even if we have the House now, we will lose it in 2022 with a Bernie presidency. They will impeach him, and they will have the votes in the Senate to remove him from office. 
And even if Bernie survived those 90% false accusations of treachery, what then? All those billionaires with all that money at their disposal, are they going to willingly let a Social Democrat President break up their businesses? They will fight with every one of their inexhaustible means to keep a Sanders presidency from compromising their business interests. Bernie would be unable to enact any part of his agenda unless Democrats controlled both houses, if anything, he would become the reason for big business to extend its corporate power still much further. And even then, there are so many Democrats in the pocket of special interests that he'd find it no less impossible than Obama ever did. 
And even if by some miracle Bernie ever got a mandate for the changes he demands, what then? All those billionaires still have all that money at their disposal, all those congressmen in their pockets, with a military and police force extremely sympathetic to their views. It doesn't take all that much to remove a head of state from office by force if 3/4ths of America's most powerful people give their permission. 
Look up Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. That is our worst-case scenario. As far as murderous military dictators go, it can get still a lot worse than Pinochet, he wasn't Hitler, he wasn't even Castro. But he was a dictator, and he was immeasurably terrible compared to anything this country ever experienced. And it's particularly every leftist in the world who considers Pinochet scarcely less terrible than Hitler. Everybody who supported Bernie Sanders from the beginning are the people who could stand to lose the most.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

So Petrenko's Beethoven 9 is on the BBC now for free for almost another two weeks. You'll probably have to listen on headphones in order to get any real impact, but I think this is a truly masterful performance. Is it as great as the very greatest yet? Probably not, but if Petrenko and the orchestra don't kill each other in a few years, there's no reason to expect less than something near the pantheon's highest heights. There aren't too many Beethoven conductors around now who strike me as true Beethovenians - either of the fast or slow variety. Blomstedt of course, maybe Honeck, and another couple who curtail some of the story. Petrenko is certainly quicker than average, but in no danger of meeting the metronome markings, and he never shortchanges either the rhythm and dynamism or the lyricism and gemütlichkeit. Think of Harnoncourt, or Leibowitz, or Munch, but ultimately this is a 9th unlike any other. The dynamic contrasts are absolutely enormous, and the phrasing so unbelievably well-contoured. It is highly in keeping with the performance-rubric of Beethoven's own period, Petrenko never imposes late romanticism, except for an occasional rubato to make the harmony breathe, it is all within classical form, which makes the romanticism feel all the more explosive. And this is, perhaps, the greatest, most luminous, most ecstatic Adagio I've ever heard in my life - all the more so because it's precisely the opposite of Furtwangler's attempts to capture infinity by taking an infinity of time. 
I'm a huge Rattle fan, but Rattle's great strength was the 20th century. He has interesting ideas about the old classics, but he never seemed to internalize them to the point that he could make them take flight too often in the way he does more modern repertoire. Petrenko, here as nearly everything we non-Germans can hear of him so far, is much less personalized, and yet within that lack of idiosyncrasy is an ability to subordinate his personality to the exact shape of the music. Petrenko can convince you you're hearing the 'thing in itself.' A lot of people call him the best of his generation. That's a bold claim, because the generation born in the 70s could quite possibly become the most spectacular generation of maestri since any born before 1900, and we've got a while to go with them. There's no questioning Petrenko's mastery, but his way of making music takes such enormous effort and discipline that it's almost exhausting to listen to, let alone conceive how much he must prepare to make it, I think I prefer the far more naturally spontaneous musicality of someone like Francois-Xavier Roth. But even so, this is such incredibly ideal music-making, the kind of Platonic music-making of the spheres that is everything we could only conceive of being this good in our imaginations. Some of us might prefer musicians who point up elements in the music beyond what we could imagine, but this is everything music-lovers hoped Carlos Kleiber would be, and now he's the director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000cz33

Monday, January 20, 2020

Three Popes - Two Popes - Introduction

An extraordinary thing happened in the Vatican recently. Another extraordinary thing happened in an era when we have Two Popes for the first time in six hundred years, in an era when a Pope was elected from the New World well over five hundred years past the Columbus's discovery, in an era when the molestation scandal was finally taken with seriousness so grave that, for the first time ever, a Pope allowed for priests to be held up for trial for the conduct of their ministry in legal court rather than ecumenical court, in an era when a Pope sanctioned the church for their remonstrative obsessions with issues of sex rather than attending to the achingly dire burdens of their lay faithful, in an era when the Vatican appears perpetually on the verge of changing its stances on divorce, in an era when the Pope himself speaks kindly of Liberation Theology... this is an extraordinary religious era in which the immobile Catholic Church, seemingly unchanging, unseeing, unhearing, unmoving and unmoved, hurtles toward change at a comparative light speed while, for the second time, the traditionalist wing, who stymied nearly every reform for centuries, must divine new tricks in order to keep up. 

Hurtles toward change, yet never quite gets there....

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dear Abby - Beginning

Hi Abby,

It's been fifteen years. Fifteen and a half to be exact. The last time I saw you, I was literally about to graduate college. I was so shocked to see you in Bethesda, so shy, so unwilling to face old Hyde friends, let alone to the fact that I brought a freshman to High School Prom, even to my best friend walking with me who knew so much about Hyde, that I said within five seconds that I had to go right away. The second I left, I knew how incredibly absurd I was being, so I explained what was what to Marc in a Dunkin' Donuts, we got our donut and coffee, and we came back. Thankfully, you were still there, and you knew exactly how weird it was that I ducked out from someone to whom I'd once bonded like a sister. I don't know for exactly how long we talked, but that was the last time we ever saw each other.

You did rather well in life, not just for a Hyde kid, but for anybody at all. A photographer with work featured in Time Magazine and Slate. I saw the work on your homepage, it's pretty impressive. You certainly captured things in your subjects, and why wouldn't a person as empathetic as you always are in my memory elicit anything less from a camera? Even at fourteen, you silenced a whole room of students and parents with a poem at a student poetry reading I organized for Family Weekend, and we were all so shocked into silence by the quality that all Mr. Spaeth and I could do was ask you to read it again. To this day I remember, a refrain bookended it: 'At Eight-Thirty in the Morning," all the more miraculous for coming from your girlish, Jennifer Tilly-like voice, and oh how you excoriated me for making fun of it. Most Hyde kids were not exactly sharp knives, but there always existed a brilliant minority of Hyde kids whose personalities were too strong and original for a typical school to ever find the key to unlock their.... I'm not going to use those two words.... you know which ones.... I would imagine that many of the parents in that room thought you just another Hyde kid too odd for her potential to ever truly reveal itself in anything but artificial circumstances, but whatever the vicissitudes of the real world that flummoxed so many of us after we got out of the gate, you are one of the very few who got to show the wide world a small fraction of what you were capable. And in that sense, your life is so rich in meaning and success to any of us who have yet to discover how to show all that we are to anyone but the small coterie who know us. Whatever our unique potentials,... there... I said the two words now gimme a diploma.... so many of the rest of us are still mute to the world, the stories we can tell of what we have been through and the still worse things we'd seen others endure, completely yet untold.

With all the continual news of death surrounding us from ghosts of Hyde past, I would occasionally see a new picture of you pop up on social media, and feel a little relief when I saw it. You looked so well-adjusted and happy, and I would genuinely think to myself that if even if so many of us Hyde kids would die prematurely from every kind of reckless living, at least Abby would live to be a hundred; and now you're dead from cancer, which you'd apparently been suffering from in all those pictures, and I, who've advertised many of my illnesses so publicly, who've feared for my health for so many years, who am continually amazed that I've neither left the party yet nor been forced to leave, am still here, and look to be here for at least another couple decades.

I heard of Marissa's suicide in September of 2018, and it apparently happened in November the year before, hopefully she can tell you more about what lead to it than I ever heard. Not that you two were ever at Hyde simultaneously for more than three weeks or so, but when two people die so prematurely, I imagine them meeting up in the next world with friends of friends they discover through social media. If you two haven't met up yet, track her down, you're gonna love each other. Marissa was as brilliant as you, nearly as gifted a writer and one of the most brilliant visual artists I've ever met, she was more extraverted and outspoken, and she was funnier than nearly anyone I'd ever met... Life around her was a non-stop dinner party, twelve-hour conversations at a time in which the interlocutor never came up for air, only for the conversation to resume the next day exactly where it left off.

So yes, as close as I was to you, my dear Abby, Marissa was the love of my adolescence, entirely unrequited of course - 'I could marry you Evan, but I can't date you.' An old flame whose flame was extinguished in the span of a few weeks. I literally followed her to American University in DC, it was the best decision I'd ever made, made for entirely the wrong reasons. I made the best friends of my life, graduated with honors, seemed on the cusp of a basically functional life, while Marissa fell in with a drug crowd, and dropped out after two years. We barely saw each other at Hyde, at first I thought it was because she didn't make the effort to see me, and of course I was a little hurt, but the further away we get from those years, the more I wonder if it wasn't the other way around. At some point in those years I made the very, very conscious decision that Hyde was just a mirage in the life of a nice Jewish boy who should never have ended up in so bizarre and authoritarian a place. I don't know how deliberate it was that I cut loose as many Hyde friendships as I did, but I can't imagine it was any more than 20% by accident. And so at the end of sophomore year, we ran into each other and had one last lunch where she told me she was probably dropping out and apologized to me for having so broken my heart. The two of us went back to hang out in my room afterward. I wish I could say that anything happened, but my love of Marissa was always in the abstract, and when she left, I gave her one of my prize possessions to keep, my copy of Dante's Inferno that I studied in private with Mr. Spaeth, whose advice was that if you're going through Hell, the only way out is to go all the way down. It was the last time I ever saw Marissa. My greatest regret is certainly not that I was never her lover, it was exactly the opposite; that whatever hell she was going through, I so easily let her abandon our friendship so that I could spend more time finally being the kid at the front of the class whom I thought I always was yet had so little evidence until I was twenty. Like Sage, Marissa will always be another Hyde kid for whose downfall I feel in some ways responsible, even if my guilt is totally illogical, it's just one of a thousand things for which I feel terrible guilt for what I continually pray are illogical reasons.

...I'm finding this is much too painful to keep going. I pray I can find a way through this impasse in the next little while. Until then, onto the next project.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A Quick Rundown of Mozart Requiem Recordings

There aren't a lot of 'Golden Age' performances on this list for a very simple reason. There are many great Mozartians among the 'old school.' No Mozart education is complete until they've heard Bruno Walter, Beecham, Böhm, Busch, Klemperer, Kleiber, Krips, Ferenc Fricsay, and Carlo Maria Giulini. But as great as orchestral and opera performances used to be, choral performances are quite a bit better today. So many conductors of previous ages are limited by amateur choirs, who are plainly not up to the demands of the contrapuntal movements. No matter how furious the rest of the conception, the work is compromised by testudine tempi in the Kyrie and the Cum Sanctis, the inability to get soft dynamics in the Lacrimosa and the Confutatis, and the bleating operatic vibrato which ruins the blend of Mozart's textures. It is also ruined by many conductors' insistence on making the proto-romanticism of the dying Mozart into something out of Bruckner's or Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and distends Mozart to an expressive weight he can't hold. A little bit of romanticism goes a long way in Mozart, and there are all sorts of arid performances from the period crowd which don't belong as well. No matter how virtuoso John Eliot Gardiner's performance, it's emotionally arid, and even that is preferable to Roger Norrington's chipper jaunt. Then there are the tasteful Mozart Requiems like Marriner and Abbado and Bruggen that are so determined not to put a foot wrong that the human expression goes missing, or the vulgar Mozart Requiems like Solti and Currentzis which are so hell-bound on being dramatic that they cut out all beauty (and let's not even get started on Nikolai Golovanov...). Mozart is so hard to play, he does not take well to playing outside his rules, and while one can successfully personalize his music, you have to preserve the sense of form and balance just about immaculately. Everything has to come through, the melodies have to soar simultaneously to that the dance rhythms have to bounce, everything in the execution has to be precise, but not so precise that the precision draws attention to itself. Every sound has to be beautiful, but not so so beautiful that beauty precludes drama. So here are some recordings which reach the impossible. 



Transcendent:

Colin Davis/London Symphony: Fabulously dramatic playing, and truly magnificent choral singing. As close to ideal as the old conception can ever get. Davis made so many recordings of this that one has the feeling that the work was closer to him than it was to any other major maestro, but as great as the others are, next to a performance this stunning, they're all a bit superfluous. 

(note: in an earlier draft I confused the Alto release and the LSO live and a youtube recording that says 'London Symphony' when upon closer inspection, it is clearly the Bavarian Radio Symphony lead by a middle-aged Sir Colin. I stuck my foot in my mouth as I so often do and said that this was Davis's first LSO recording and better than his LSO Live recording, which is, of course, the same recording, in slightly sharper sound on the Alto label that better brings out its great qualities. Please do not doubt my integrity or good intentions, only doubt my competence.)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Concentus Musicus Wien (second recording): The other 'ultimate' Mozart Requiem conductor draws out the most detailed, magnificent, and terrifying orchestral playing, along with fantastically blended soloists and a very fine chorus. Listen to the strings evoke hell's flames in the Confutatis, the stab of the first trombone entrance in the Introit and the trombone's imposition in the Tuba Mirum, the surprise of the sudden pianissimo in the Dies Irae and the subsequent explosion, the French pomp of the rhythms on 'Rex Tremendae Majestantis', the rare cantabile of period strings in the Recordare, the huge dynamic contrasts in the Agnus Dei.   Of course, this being Harnoncourt, it's quite idiosyncratic. I wonder if the only true misstep among all this is the jig-like tempo in the Hostias, which is not as huge problem as it might seem since it's over so quickly... But even elsewhere, so much of this seems rewritten  it's so thoroughly Harnoncourt-ized that I'm not even sure the differences are in the completion Harnoncourt uses. But such is the nature of performance, transcendence aims past perfection and goes straight to infinity. Mozart does not usually take well to personalization, but that's because concepts Mozart had no idea about are imposed upon him. This is Mozart within his zeitgeist, unspoiled yet by the 19th century, and event he divergences from Mozart have Mozart's era coded on its DNA, and therefore the personalization sounds so much less vulgar than when done by Nikolai Golovanov or Helmut Koch. In seven words: the bony hand of death is everywhere.

Excellence:  

Masaki Suzuki/Bach Collegium Japan: If the whole thing were a little slower, it would practically be perfect. Suzuki is not a huge original personality like Harnoncourt or Jacobs, but his seemingly infallible musical judgement is without precedent in the HIP world. Even the 4-minute Recordare, a movement that usually take 6 (!), works on its own terms - a dance, with such wonderful blended singing and playing. 

Mariss Jansons/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Netherlands Radio Choir: What a stunning surprise from a conductor who was never known for Mozart! Huge dynamic range, fantastic playing and singing, a relatively 'big' reading of course, but not nearly so big as to be unwieldy - Jansons knows exactly how to keep it all within the bounds of classical form. The Concertgebouworkest sounds slightly reduced, and the choir sounds like it's roughly three-dozen voices.  Jansons ignites a Dies Irae for all time, and no one makes the heavenly female voices of the Confutatis sound so eerie, and only Thielemann also creates such a powerful dichotomy between awe and mystery between the loud and quiet passages of the Lacrimosa. 

Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Concentus Musicus Wien (first recording): Uses the Wiener State Opera Chorus, a huge, dramatic sound that, unlike with many Kappelmaestri on previous recordings, Harnoncourt compels to sing with enormous commitment, focus, and discipline.  

Colin Davis/Bavarian Radio Symphony: Extremely dramatic and grand. Not quite the passionate forcefulness of London, but that's unrepeatable. 

Great:


George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus: A live concert in imperfect sound, but Mozart's Requiem is the type of piece made for Szell, classic in formal proportion, romantic in sentiment. As modern as he was for his time, Szell's orientation is still
 at times a bit too much of the 19th century to truly lift the piece to heaven the way Davis or Jansons do, but among conductors born in the 19th century, he is perhaps uniquely distinguished and perceptive in this work. 

Christian Thielemann/Munich Philharmonic: When it comes to tempi, Thielemann is surprisingly restrained and hands off, but with a truly enormous dynamic range - almost exaggerated, this is Thielemann after all, but tremendously effective. 

Christopher Hogwood/Academy of Ancient Music: The choir uses boys, and there are huge differences in the edition from the usual Sussmayr, whole sections are unrecognizably rewritten, and not in Jacobs's way for dramatic immediacy, but to literally improve Sussmayr's corrections and try to musicologically re-create a work closer to how Mozart would have completed it. Nevertheless, perhaps the novelty spurs Hogwood to a level of intensity one rarely expects from him. 

Colin Davis/BBC Symphony: The young Colin still a little bit too romantic and old-fashioned here, the slow movements are too slow and stately, but even before he turns forty, Davis gets so much right already, and you already have a sense that this will be the ultimate conductor of Mozart's Requiem. 


Daniel Barenboim/Orchestre et Ceour de Paris: A Wagnerian drama: huge, dramatic, exciting. Romantic Mozart done right. As only a truly brilliant musician can, Barenboim knows exactly how far to push an imposed concept without going overboard. Sure, everything is huge and slow and legato in the most Victorian manner, but Barenboim generally knows exactly how slow is slow enough (except in the Tuba Mirum...), and with such an overwhelming mass of sound he conjures, he can go slow indeed and still hold our attention. What prevents this recording from being ranked near the very highest echelon is that in the so crucial movements of the late Sequenza, this otherwise powerful, passionate, and even rather impressive large choir goes unforgivably flat. Given that this recording is 35 years old and how frequently Danny re-records, Barenboim is well-overdue for a remake. 

Very Good:


Rene Jacobs/Freiburg Baroque: Jacobs gonna Jacobs - he pretty much rewrites it as he goes along, some of it is the very new edition he uses, some of it is obviously Jacobs. if you dislike Jacobs, it's not for you, but there's a lot I love. The theatrical immediacy is tastable - perhaps it's almost more appropriate for Vivaldi or Handel than Mozart. In a movement like Tuba Mirum, this sort of embellished rewriting is direly necessary - it's so long and the texture so thin that there no way that Mozart viewed it as finished when he died, and Jacobs is perhaps the only plausible attempt at a completion. On the other hand, a lot of the slow movements like the Recordare don't have enough in the way of tenderness and warmth. Like Barenboim, I want to rank this much higher, but the mistakes insist upon themselves, and all the mores because, unlike Barenboim, they are ultimately mistakes of spirit, not letter. I cannot escape the feeling that as good as larger-than-life moments are, Jacobs is not interested in the warm and tender moments, and does his best to make Mozart sound like Gluck or Vivaldi. There are much worse options, but except for the Tuba Mirum and the Confutatis, it's still not really Mozart. 

Riccardo Muti/Berlin Philharmonic/Two Swedish Chamber Choirs: It's definitely too lacquered. The textures are pure Sachertorte, so high in cholesterol and sweet to the ear that one begins to suspect death comes in the form of diabetes. The Recordare is pure opera, they might as well be performing Die Meistersinger, but alongside all this voluptuousness comes passages whose touch gives off the singe of hellfire. As one might expect from Muti, the Dies Irae is one of the most fearsome on record, and the contrasts in the Confutatis are never demarcated more impressively than Muti makes them here. The bigger problem is that the Lacrimosa and Agnus Dei are too slow, collapsing under their romantic weight. Nevertheless, the whole is beautiful like a particularly gaudy cathedral; even as you're put off by the ostentation, you can smell the incense and feel the spookiness of the existential stakes. 


Peter Neumann/Collegium Cartusianum: Very intimate. It's mostly a little underpowered, and definitely too orderly - to follow this music into the sublime of the next world - the execution too precise, the phrasing too clipped, the fortes and crescendi not overwhelming enough, but it nevertheless has a true beauty. A friend of mine played me the Recordare, saying that it was a ideal 5:40 of music making, and in that movement, I found it hard to disagree. I wish there was a little more cantabile warmth in the strings when they have to sing out, but the soloists blend together with almost unprecedented magnificence and the orchestra is with them at every moment. I'm not convinced the rest is at the same level of music making, but were the rest on the level of the Recordare, or the end of the Confutatis, it would easily be a transcendent recording. 

Peter Schreier/Staatskapelle Dresden/Leipzig Radio Choir: The version I grew up on, few are more praised. It's reliable, and does everything well. Margaret Price is nothing short of angelically perfect, the Staatskapelle Dresden plays perfectly of course, the singing of the Leipzig Radio Chorus is almost beyond reproach, aside from Theo Adam's wobbly bass-baritone, the only problem is that it's all a little too sensible and orderly. The soft sections are beautifully warm, but they're not particularly soft, and the Requiem requires truly soft playing to give the loud sections context that unleashes their full power. 


Phillippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale Ghent: ditto.

Savall/LCDN: It's very dramatic, a huge dynamic range, incredibly well-executed, a little rigid. 

Herbert von Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic: By Karajan's final time through the Mozart Requiem of roughly a thousand, he realized he had to trim the edges of the usual funereal Mozartian soup and create something leaner. The result, while still not quite great, does find the Mozart.

Hermann Scherchen/Vienna Symphony: The choir sucks, but Scherchen's vision is overwhelming.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

I Saw Cats Four Times - So How Was The Show Mrs. Lincoln? - Final Draft

Before we start, I have to issue a correction. In the first of these two podcasts I said that Cats had run on Broadway for forty years. That was entirely incorrect, it ran on Broadway for an extremely unimpressive eighteen years, from 1982 to 2000, with only 7,485 performances, which at the time of its closing was merely the longest running Broadway show in history, grossing only 388 million dollars in Broadway ticket sales with an economic impact of 3.12 billion dollars on the city of New York. It is now, merely, the fourth-longest running Broadway show. In 2015, the show was revived on Broadway, which had a year-and-a-half long run of a mere 593 performances. On the West End in London, Cats ran from 1981 to 2002, a grand total of 8,949 performances. Tickets for closing night were so in demand that the show was broadcast live on an outdoor screen in Covent Garden. It too was the West End's longest running show when it closed. When Cats returned to the West End for a 12 week run in 2014, so in demand was Cats that the run was doubled so that 100,000 extra tickets could be sold. Six months after its closing, it was revived yet again for another three-month run to honor the overflow demand of Brits who couldn't get one of those 100,000 extra tickets. So no, Cats was not quite as huge an industry as I mistakenly believed, but oh my god... how do people love this show so much?!?!

So what of the movie itself?

The problems start at the very beginning of the movie. of course. An eighties synthesizer score clashing against extremely interwar Art Deco set design. The eighties synth is breathtakingly ugly. Over and over again, has one of those THX 1138 effects that announce 'the audience is listening'. I suppose it's supposed to remind us of caterwauling, but that would at least make sense, and it happens at all the most inopportune moments. Including in Memories, imagine, whatever you think of the song, it's one of the most iconic music theater songs of the 20th century, sung in a great performance and interrupted more than half a dozen times by (THX effect sped up). Anthropomorphic cats, stripped of their David Bowie costumes and Cirque du Soleil sets, exist in a setting that appears to demonstrate them discarded pets of Evelyn Waugh.

The cats are all naked with fur that looks more like skin tattooed on than any kind of fur, except for the cats who wear shoes! Or the cats who wear fur coats! Many male cats have bulges in wide frame that disappear in close up. The female cats, most notably Taylor Swift, clearly have nipples in wide frame but the nipples disappear from close up. Which of course begs the questionWHY DO ALL THE CATS HAVE ONLY TWO NIPPLES?!?!?!

The one human we see in the entire movie is at the very beginning, which is more I think than we ever see in the show, so this ruins any suspension of disbelief that this world might be meant for Cats and not for humans. And yet, just as in the show, every set is clearly designed as a Cat-world in which literally every building is a Cat pun. The Egyptian theater with images of Cats over the facade, a bar that seems to serve nothing but milk on a plate,  Is this a world where Cats are worshipped? Is this anthropomorsis part of a symbiotic world where Cats are basically human equals? Is it set post-nuclear apocalypse where there are barely any humans and Cats have mutated into intelligent beings who have a language of song-and-dance and collective speak - not to mention mice and cockroaches have done the same, more on them later...? Or is this just a concept green-lighted by a thousand rubber stamps with objections raised by nobody at all?

In the show, the introductory song is clearly supposed to be addressed to the audience, and sets up that Cats is basically a review show in which the audience, not the other cats, are the most crucial addressees. Yet the movie addresses the introductory song to a protagonist newly created for the movie, completely absent from the show of origin - a cat named Victoria, played by an incredibly talented and beautiful performer named Francesca Hayward who is terrifyingly smoldering even when looking surgically altered by Dr. Moreau to resemble a human cat. Even after Cats, James Corden shall continue his ubiquitous appearances in everything without so much of a scratch to his mystifying career, but the world will always remember Francesca Hayward as star of Cats so we will never hear from this new Ginger Rogers ever again. 


By the end of the opening number, it begged a number of questions I considered too obvious for the movie not to answer: Does the gang of Jellicle cats do this musical song and dance for every cat who passes by? Is it a way of enticing them to join the Jellicle gang? Is it a way of scaring them off? Is it a manner of displaying plumage and assessing potential new members or threats? And even if it isn't all that, won't they be they be seen in this clearly human city by humans who will continuously exclaim HOLY SHIT! SINGING CATS!!! Also, after hearing that word literally three-hundred times over the course of the movie and now probably twelve-hundred times over the course of four viewings, I still have one overriding question: WHAT THE FUCK IS A JELLICLE!?! 

And 'fuck' is a very important concept in this movie. All the cats look as though they're about to fuck each other, and I do mean all of them. The young ones look just as likely to fuck Judy Dench or Ian McKellen as more age appropriate ones. They constantly circle each other, caress each other, fondle each other, and rather than kiss, they simply nuzzle each other's cheeks. I would venture a guess that there is more face-nuzzling in this movie than there's been in the 120 years of cinema history; and there are moments when all the cats start a group incantation of spoken word lyrics that sounds like the orgy music in Eyes Wide Shut.   

But if all of these cats are so confident in the opening number and full of braggadocious plumage, why then do they run off with such cowardly immediacy when the villain, McCavity, makes his first appearance. And some villain: It's never established, the nature of his villainy. Is he a drug dealer? Is he a mafia don? Does he mean to send fish in the mail for every cat he kills,... or does he just eat the fish? Well,... he does appear to have a magic dust that makes himself and other cats disapparate and reappear in a place of his choosing. The properties of said dust are never established. It's never established how he acquires it, or how he can do it, or why he does it, or why he affixes some sort of whispery magic tag on his disapparations, like 'INEFFABLE!' 'MEOW!' 'MCCAVITYYYY!'. But McCavity is played by the great Idris Elba, STRINGER BELL FROM THE WIRE! In one interview, Idris Elba explained that he refused to appear in Marvel movies because they were beneath his dignity AND NOW HE'S A NAKED CAT! It was highly presumed that Idris Elba would soon be the first black James Bond. Instead, he is this...  and this is so much better, aside from being the first black James Bond, Idris Elba would eventually just be another Bond in a role defined for all time by Sean Connery, but now he will always be remembered the actor who took his reputation as the most badass actor ON THE PLANET and leveraged it to be a naked cat. 

We are then treated to roughly eighty minutes of introductory songs. 80 minutes of introductory songs you say? Indeed. And yet perhaps there is method to this madness. We need to know about the cat names because the entire musical is made up of cats introducing their names. THAT'S THE WHOLE FUCKING MUSICAL!...

The introductions truly begin with Rebel Wilson as Jenny Any-dots. How do we BEGIN to talk about this: she uses her tail as a microphone, except that the first time she uses a tail for a microphone, she's clearly using the tail of a different cat who's never seen. Perhaps she's a mass murderer cat who collects tails the way the Judge collects scalps in Blood Meridian or Buffalo Bill collects skin in Silence of the Lambs! And there's plenty of evidence that she's a psychopath! She unzips her fur only to have another coat of fur underneath her fur, did she literally skin another cat!?!?! She then sings her number with singing mice with human faces that are clearly children but who also have human hands. And then she displays her army of scaled down cockroaches that she's trained to be a Busby Berkeley chorus line, a few of which she eats during the production, and so badly do these cockroaches suffer from Stockholm Syndrome that none of them recoil in horror but imperviously maintain their march formation! And this is, somehow, considered a charming number. 

Then there's the Rum Tum Tugger song, sold by Jason Derulo with the maximum sex appeal a man can give while dressed in a cat suit. To state the obvious, Jason Derulo is a decent looking man, but not even a young Brando could sell a mid-song admiring look and comment upon his handsomeness in the mirror while he's DRESSED LIKE A CAT. As horrific as Rebel Wilson's song is, I wonder if this song is still moreso. At another point Derulo seductively dances with Francesca Hayward, who clearly is a ballet dancer among her many other talents unfortunately exhibited nowhere else to the cinema-going public but here; he lifts her leg up to his head and comes within an eighth of an inch of sucking on her toes.  At one point later in the movie he emerges from a trashcan with two female cats.   Later in the song, Mr. Derulo literally exclaims MILK! which signals that all the Cats ought pile into an establishment literally named 'MILK BAR', where nothing but milk is served onto a plate from a tap, and toward the end of the song, Jason Derulo literally pours the milk tap into the face of one of the female cats, in what one youtube critic called with absolute validity: 'A MILK FACIAL!' The catwomen fawn on him as though he could go to bed with four at a time, but that's probably inadvisable, because apparently Mr. Derulo's natural bulge was so visible through the costume that the CGI department had him neutered... where there should be a bulge there's nothing but a curve.... Derulo apparently was fond enough of his natural bulge that he tried to call out the Cats CGI for their obviously Stalinist act of artistic censorship. Very classy Mr. Derulo, you were clearly the right performer for this job. 

This movie shows just how sad Jennifer Hudson's character is not by recounting any of her backstory, really ever, except that she once had a couple dates with McCavity. Everybody has romantic regrets... but rather than demonstrate more about why Grizabella the glamor cat is a Jellicle outcast, this movie develops an extreme fixation on Jennifer Hudson's snot; lovingly trickling down her feline brail lips. God bless this performer, she sings her huge feline heart out. It might be an amazing performance, except that then you realize that she's singing this with fur and cat ears and whiskers and who could EVER take this seriously?

There is not a single cat pun that Cats misses. It must have taken a month of brainstorming. The culprits are, of course, the comedians, James Cordon and Rebel Wilson.... This movie... has James Corden... throwing up from overeating THREE TIMES! And this is considered part of his charm. It also has James Cordon eating leftovers from every trash can in central London like a feline George Costanza! I also believe times is the number Cordon and Rebel Wilson get hit between them in the groin, though it may in fact be four, as though Tom Hooper knew that we wouldn't find the trashcan to the groin remotely funny the first two times, so that by failing more spectacularly with each attempt - the unfunniness itself becomes funny. and if that was the director's gambit, he was absolutely right! At one point there's a bottle of champagne poured into Cordon's mouth which he laps with his tongue, and yet the spigot of CGI champagne LITERALLY STOPS MID-AIR before it hits his mouth!

And then there are the twin 'cat burglar cats,' Mongo Jerry, and Rumble Teaser. Chaotic neutral characters, neither good nor villainous, who simply break into a house, go right up to the dinner table, and use the three minutes of their song to SMEAR THEIR ASSHOLES ON THE PLATES!

We then are treated to precisely where Idris Elba kidnaps all the cats to, a barge in the middle of the Thames river. Why there? Who the fuck knows?! We just have to go with it. A great and underrated British actor, Ray Winstone, plays McCavity's henchman, Growltiger, who deserves so much better than his only song to be interrupted by MORE James Corden gags.  

Setups exist all through the movie with all the invention of: 'WHO IS THIS CHARACTER?' Followed by the song! There are all kinds of group incantation of poetic verse, because apparently cats exist in a hive mind. And somehow the outsider cat Victoria KNOWS THE WORDS TO THE INCANTATIONS IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT SHE'S NEVER MET ANY OF THEM! And though each cat has three individual names they chant the verse of the cat's three names as though they are a single, beehive-or-borg-like entity. Listen to this for just a moment  (up to 0:24) IF THEY'RE CHANTING AS A GROUP WHY DO THEY REFER TO THEMSELVES AS 'I'?!?!?!?!?

And then there is poor Judy Dench, draped in a fur coat that is exactly the same hew as her fur, so I can only assume that at some point when she'd put on a little weight she'd skinned herself yet somehow grew her fur back. Dame Judi plays what seems to be the Prime Minister of the Jellicle Cats, Old Deuteronomy, who is introduced in a song whose rhymes do not entirely rhyme, and one cannot quite blame Cats's famous lyricist, Tim Rice, for this problem because he was stuck with the daunting challenge of finding rhymes for 'Deuteronomy.' Then, some more group chants, which exist while we find Ian McKellen hamming his inner cat, he's sometimes in these group scenes, sometimes not, depending on which days they could afford him, and mid-chant, intoning in his most thespianly voice: "Meow Meow MEOOOOWWWWW!"

And then... there is... the Jellicle ball, when the Jellicle moon so puts every cat into a pagan-like trance that they dance a Feline Rite of Spring, except that the music is, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber synth. At the end of it, a theatrical audience would naturally emit a gale force of applause. But film has no such luxury, so we merely hear the winded breath of the dancers, who sound like they've all partaken of yet another exhausting orgy. The breathing was so vivid, dear listener, that I swear I could smell the 'BO' in the theater. 

And now we get to Ian McKellen's song, as Gus, the theater cat. Even more than Dame Judy, Sir Ian clearly takes this very, very, seriously. And bless him, the greatest King Lear ever caught on film makes all kinds of thespian meows and purrs and caterwauls, he even laps water out of a bowl with his tongue while standing on two legs. Outside of the song, half his lines in this movie are so overacted that they cant be understood. But the true piece du resistance is right at the end of this song, the moment of this movie that truly made me cry-laugh. The cat audience so appreciates McKellan's performance that they don't cheer with applause or bravos or even woos, rather, a hundred cats all wail rawaawawwwwrr! That is the moment when I realized I wasn't just seeing a typical terrible movie. This is a once in a generation movie! The kind of failure that can only be created by geniuses. 

And then comes Skimbelshank the railway cat, and in some ways it's the best of all the numbers, frenetic as a train, actual momentum, relatively clever lyrics, even a relatively complex rhythm in the bridge, the only problem is that when the Cats come to the railroad, they are suddenly one third their size, no larger than rats in relation to the rails. 

And finally, we come to Taylor Swift, the alleged star of the show if one believed the billing. Reclining in a chez longe made to look like a golden moon, and sprinkling what is literally EXPLODING CAT NIP on all the Jellicle cats who are literally tranced and brainwashed into temporarily becoming Taylor Swift dancers. Taylor sings not of herself, but of McCavity, who somehow does not have much song of his own, but this song doesn't really tell us much about McCavity either. We still have no idea who McCavity is or why the other cats find him so terrifying.  So if we never learn who McCavity is, what hope have we to learn who T-Swift's cat is either? All we know is that Taylor Swift's cat cleavage is, for whatever reason, massive and generously areolaed, except in close-up shot, where nipples completely vanish, and yet again begs the question: WHY DO THESE CATS HAVE TWO NIPPLES?!?

We finally get to the 'weenie' or 'MacGuffin' of the whole thing. McCavity kidnapped all the other competing cats so that he will win the Jellicle Ball, some criminal mastermind this guy...  The annual Jellicle Ball determines which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer. What is the Heaviside Layer you ask?.....

Don't...

And when Old Deuteronomy doesn't choose McCavity, he vanishes her to the same barge to which all the other solo cats disapparated and McCavity makes 'Deuteronomy' walk the plank...

And yet, a full five minutes later, when it comes time for Magical Mr. Mestopheles to apparate her back, she is yet alive and not even wet, perhaps she finagled her way out of walking the plank to its edge, but we shall never find out how. Magical Mr. Mestopheles is apparently clever enough to transport cats from the middle of the Thames to somewhere around Leicester Square, but is he really clever enough to effect BODILY RESURRECTION FROM A MILE AWAY? Not to mention, over the course of HIS song Mr. Mestopheles sings about how he's black from the top of his ears to the tip of his tail, and all the while HE'S CLEARLY MOSTLY WHITE! Not to mention the problems of continuity shots - there's one shot where a Cat is holding a hat in her hand, only to cut to a side shot where she's holding the SAME HAT IN HER MOUTH! Not to mention yet again the issue of Jason Derulo's musical hamminess. While everybody is singing "Oh, well I never was there ever, a cat so clever as Magical Mr. Mestopheles," he literally goes off on his own falsetto solo in the middle of a unison chorus... After the reappearance of Old Deuteronomy, Mr. Mestophelees literally makes all the cards and instruments and flowers in the room float through the air as he flies though it. What a moment of triumph...

Finally, we return to Jennifer Hudson's snot. What does Memories have to do with the rest of Cats?... Well... What does any song in this movie have to do with any other? After four experiences in the theater, I have absolutely no idea what Memories is about. Traditionally, the point of music theater songs is that they can't just exist on their own, they have to move the plot forward or else they halt the plot completely. BUT WHAT PLOT DOES CATS HAVE?!? And then, of course in the middle of the song there's six of (THX)

So inevitably Jennifer Hudson's outcast cat is the Jellicle Choice. Why? Because she can sing loud. She makes her way to the hot-air balloon to ascend to the Heaviside layer. So what is the reward that Idris Elba and James Corden and Rebel Wilson and Ian McKellen sought so fervently? It is, very simply, TO BE THE VICTIM OF A PAGAN SACRIFICE!!! Jennifer Hudson ascends to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn, the moment before the movie ends, she disappears in a twinkle of light, presumably in the same moment when she suffocates from the lack of oxygen in the Earth's upper atmosphere. 

But not before Judi Dench imparts a FIVE MINUTE homily to the audience about how to address a cat atop one of the lions of Trafalgar Square. The moral of this story: (original cast recording of 'a cat is not a dog'). Which is then repeated at blazing fortissimo by feline Nuremberg. ('a cat is not a dog').

This movie is so bad that it is one of the best movies I've ever seen. It could only be made by a great director, and Tom Hooper is a truly great director. Not of movies per se, but of TV miniseries there's hardly anyone better in the world, His most famous movie is The King's Speech, which is a respectable movie in the stuffy tradition of undeserving Best Picture winners as I'm sure many of you myriads of listeners know, but his masterpiece is John Adams, a seven-episode HBO recreation of Colonial America that so far as I know is an unsurpassable rendering of Colonial American life. Whether in John Adams or in his ersatz-Shakespearean retelling of the loves of Queen Elizabeth I, Hooper's television is in the best cinematic tradition of extremely expressionist portrayals of history,  like Amadeus, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Andrei Rublev, Paths of Glory, The Seventh Seal, Ran and Rashamon, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Is Hooper's TV really that good to compete with the best of Herzog and Kurosawa? Well, very nearly, and were he to do a TV miniseries every two years he might even produce something that gets to the very highest echelon of cinematic art! In both John Adams and Elizabeth, the costumes and stories are very real approximations, but the filming is so dynamic and modern that you cannot ever think this any stuffy recreation for comfortable people. Hooper's television is jarring in manners we never think of a costume drama.

So why the fuck is he making musicals?  I have no idea except to say Long may he continue making them! Whether Les Mis or Cats, and one day it's worth doing a podcast on the terror that is Hooper's rendering of the Les Miserables musical, these are terrible musical movies in the best tradition of The Music Lovers and Lisztomania, Rocky Horror and Repo: The Genetic Opera, Cannibal: The Musical and Xanadu. All these movies are the opposite of good, but they're all worth seeing, and the only difference is that Hooper was given a budget of NEARLY A HUNDRED MILLIONS DOLLARS! Hooper should be given at least a billion dollars to make ten more musicals like Cats! LET'S SEE HOW MANY PEOPLE HE CAN OFFEND WITH MISS SAIGON! LET HIM RUIN EVERY BABY BOOMER CHILDHOOD WITH A REMAKE OF THE SOUND OF MUSIC! LET HIM MAKE THE GRATUITOUSLY SEXUALIZED DISNEY REMAKES WE ALL KNOW COULD EASILY BE MADE FROM THEM!  Because Cats is one of the worst movies ever directed, ever produced, ever seen. May we have a hundred more like it! 

Monday, January 6, 2020

I Saw Cats Four Times: How Was The Show Mrs. Lincoln? - Penultimate Draft


So what of the movie itself?

The problems start at the very beginning of the movie. of course. An eighties synthesizer score clashing against extremely interwar Art Deco set design. The eighties synth is breathtakingly ugly. Over and over again, has one of those THX 1138 effects that announce 'the audience is listening'. I suppose it's supposed to remind us of caterwauling, but that would at least make sense, and it happens at all the most inopportune moments. Including in Memories, imagine, whatever you think of the song, it's one of the most iconic music theater songs of the 20th century, sung in a great performance and interrupted more than half a dozen times by (THX effect sped up). Anthropomorphic cats, stripped of their David Bowie costumes and Cirque du Soleil sets, exist in a setting that appears to demonstrate them discarded pets of Evelyn Waugh. The cats are all naked with fur that looks more like skin tattooed on than any kind of fur, except for the cats who wear shoes! Or the cats who wear fur coats! Many male cats have bulges in wide frame that disappear in close up. The female cats, most notably Taylor Swift, clearly have nipples in wide frame but the nipples disappear from close up. Which of course begs the questionWHY DO ALL THE CATS HAVE ONLY TWO NIPPLES?!?!?!

The one human we see in the entire movie is at the very beginning, which is more I think than we ever see in the show, so this ruins any suspension of disbelief that this world might be meant for Cats and not for humans. And yet, just as in the show, every set is clearly designed as a Cat-world in which literally every building is a Cat pun. The Egyptian theater with images of Cats over the facade, a bar that seems to serve nothing but milk on a plate,  Is this a world where Cats are worshipped? Is this anthropomorsis part of a symbiotic world where Cats are basically human equals? Is it set post-nuclear apocalypse where there are barely any humans and Cats have mutated into intelligent beings who have a language of song-and-dance and collective speak - not to mention mice and cockroaches have done the same, more on them later...? Or is this just a concept green-lighted by a thousand rubber stamps with objections raised by nobody at all?

In the show, the introductory song is clearly supposed to be addressed to the audience, and sets up that Cats is basically a review show in which the audience, not the other cats, are the most crucial addressees. Yet the movie addresses the introductory song to a protagonist  newly created for the movie, completely unthought of by the show - a cat named Victoria, played by an incredibly talented and beautiful performer named Francesca Hayward who is terrifyingly smoldering even when looking surgically altered by Dr. Moreau to resemble a human cat. Even after Cats, James Corden shall continue his ubiquitous appearances in everything without so much of a scratch to his mystifying career, but the world will always remember Francesca Hayward as star of Cats so we will never hear from this new Ginger Rogers ever again. 

By the end of the opening number, it begged a number of questions I considered too obvious to not be answered by the movie. Does the gang of Jellicle cats do this musical song and dance for every cat who passes by? Is it a way of enticing them to join the Jellicle gang? Is it a way of scaring them off? Is it a way of showing their plumage and assessing potential new members or threats? And even if it isn't all that, won't they be they be seen by humans in what's clearly a human city who will continuously exclaim HOLY SHIT! SINGING CATS!!! Also, after hearing that word literally three-hundred times over the course of the movie and now probably twelve-hundred times over the course of four viewings, I still have one overriding question: WHAT THE FUCK IS A JELLICLE!?! 

And 'fuck' is a very important concept in this movie. All the cats look as though they're about to fuck each other, and I do mean all of them. The young ones look just as likely to fuck Judy Dench or Ian McKellen as more age appropriate ones. There are moments when all the cats start a group incantation of spiken word lyrics that sounds like the prelude to the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.   

But if all of these cats are so confident in the opening number and full of braggadocious plumage, why then do they run off with such cowardly immediacy when the villain, McCavity, makes his first appearance. And some villain: It's never established, the nature of his villainy. Is he a drug dealer? Is he a mafia don? Does he mean to send fish in the mail for every cat he kills,... or does he just eat the fish? Well,... he does appear to have a magic dust that makes himself and other cats disapparate and reappear in a place of his choosing. The properties of said dust are never established. It's never established how he acquires it, or how he can do it, or why he does it, or why he affixes some sort of whispery magic tag on his disapparations, like 'INEFFABLE!' 'MEOW!' 'MCCAVITYYYY!'. But McCavity is played by the great Idris Elba, STRINGER BELL FROM THE WIRE! In one interview, Idris Elba explained that he refused to appear in Marvel movies because they were beneath his dignity AND NOW HE'S A NAKED CAT! It was highly presumed that Idris Elba would soon be the first black James Bond. Instead, he is this...  and this is so much better, aside from being the first black James Bond, Idris Elba would eventually just be another Bond in a role defined for all time by Sean Connery, but now he will always be Idris Elba in a cat suit. 

We are then treated to roughly eight-five minutes of introductory songs. 80 minutes of introductory songs you say? Indeed. And yet perhaps there is method to this madness. We need to know about cat names because the entire musical is made up of cats introducing their names. THAT'S THE WHOLE FUCKING MUSICAL!...

The introductions truly begin with Rebel Wilson as Jenny Any-dots. How do we BEGIN to talk about this: she uses her tail as a microphone, except that the first time she uses a tail for a microphone, she's clearly using the tail of a different cat who's never seen. Perhaps she's a mass murderer cat who collects tails the way the Judge collects scalps in Blood Meridian or Buffalo Bill collects skin in Silence of the Lambs! And there's plenty of evidence that she's a psychopath! She unzips her fur only to have another coat of fur underneath her fur, did she literally skin another cat!?!?! She then sings her number with singing mice with human faces that are clearly children but who also have human hands. And then she displays her army of scaled down cockroaches that she's trained to be a Busby Berkeley chorus line, a few of which she eats during the production, and so cowed are the cockroaches that none of them recoil in horror but imperviously maintain their march formation! And this is, somehow, considered a charming number. 

Then there's the Rum Tum Tugger song, sold by Jason Derulo with the maximum sex appeal a man can give while dressed in a cat suit. To state the obvious, Jason Derulo is a decent looking man, but not even a young Brando could sell a mid-song admiring look and comment upon his handsomeness in the mirror, while he's DRESSED LIKE A CAT. As horrific as Rebel Wilson's song is, I wonder if this song is still more.  At another point Derulo seductively dances with Francesca Hayward, who clearly is a ballet dancer among her many other talents unfortunately exhibited nowhere else to the general public but here; he lifts her leg up to his head and comes within an eighth of an inch of sucking on her toes.  At one point later in the movie he emerges from a trashcan with two female cats.   Later in the song, Mr. Derulo literally exclaims MILK! which signals that all the Cats ought pile into an establishment literally named 'MILK BAR', where nothing but milk is served onto a plate from a tap, and toward the end of the song, Jason Derulo literally pours the milk tap into the face of one of the female cats, in what one youtube critic called with absolutely correctness: 'A MILK FACIAL!' The female cats fawn on him as though he could go to bed with four of them at a time, but that's probably inadvisable, because apparently Mr. Derulo's natural bulge was so visible through the costume that the CGI department had him neutered... there's should be a bulge there's nothing but a curve.... Derulo apparently was fond enough of his natural bulge that he tried to call out the Cats CGI for their obviously Stalinist act of artistic censorship. 

This movie shows just how sad Jennifer Hudson is not by recounting any of her backstory, really ever, except that she once had a couple dates with McCavity. Everybody has romantic regrets... but rather than demonstrate more about why Grizabella the glamor cat is a Jellicle outcast, this movie develops an extreme fixation on Jennifer Hudson's snot; lovingly trickling down her feline brail lips. God bless this performer, she sings her huge feline heart out. It might be an amazing performance, except that then you realize that she's singing this with fur and cat ears and whiskers and who could EVER take this seriously?

There is not a single cat pun that Cats misses. It must have taken a month of brainstorming. The culprits are, of course, the comedians, James Cordon and Rebel Wilson.... This movie... has James Corden... throwing up from overeating THREE TIMES! And this is considered part of his charm. It also has James Cordon eating leftovers from every trash can in central London like a feline George Costanza. Three times is also the number of times landed on a trash can by his nuts, as though they knew that we wouldn't find the trashcan to the groin funny the first two times and keeps trying to land a single physical gag, failing more spectacularly with each attempt - by the third time Corden gets hit in the balls, the unfunniness itself is nearly funny.  At one point there's a bottle of champagne poured into his mouth which he laps with his tongue, and yet the CGI champagne LITERALLY STOPS MID-AIR before it hits his mouth!

There's the twin cat burglar cats, Mongo Jerry, and Rumble Teasrer. Chaotic neutral characters, neither good nor villainous, who simply break into a house, go right up to the dinner table, and use the three minuts of their song to SMEAR THEIR ASSHOLES ON THE PLATES!

We then are treated to precisely where Idris Elba kidnaps all the cats to, a barge in the middle of the Thames river. Why there? Who the fuck knows?! We just have to go with it. A great and underrated British actor, Ray Winstone, plays McCavity's henchman, Growltiger, who deserves so much better than his only song to be interrupted by MORE James Corden gags.  

Setups exist all through the movie with all the invention of: 'WHO IS THIS CHARACTER?' Followed by the song! There are all kinds of group incantation of poetic verse, because apparently cats exist in a hive mind. And somehow the outsider cat VICTORIA KNOWS ALL THE WORDS TO THE INCANTATIONS IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT SHE'S NEVER MET ANY OF THEM! And though each cat has three individual names they chant the verse of the cat's three names as though they are a single, beehive-or-borg-like entity. Listen to this for just a moment  (up to 0:24) IF THEY'RE CHANTING AS A GROUP WHY DO THEY REFER TO THEMSELVES AS 'I'?!?!?!?!?

And then there is poor Judy Dench, draped in a fur coat that is exactly the same hew as her fur, so I can only assume that at some point when she'd put on a little weight she'd skinned herself yet somehow grew her fur back. Dame Judi plays what seems to be the Prime Minister of the Jellicle Cats, Old Deuteronomy, who is introduced in a song whose rhymes do not entirely rhyme, and one cannot quite blame Cats's famous lyricist, Tim Rice, for this problem because he was stuck with the daunting challenge of rhyming with 'Deuteronomy.' Then, some more group chants, which exist while we find Ian McKellen hamming his inner cat, he's sometimes in these group scenes, sometimes not, depending on which days they could afford him, and mid-chant, intoning in his most thespianly voice: Meow Meow MEOOOOWWWWW!

And then... there is... the Jellicle ball, when the Jellicle moon so puts every cat into a pagan-like trance that they dance a Feline Rite of Spring, except that the music is, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber synth. At the end of it, a theatrical audience would naturally emit storm of applause. But film has no such luxury, so we merely hear the winded breath of the dancers, who sound like they've all partaken of yet another exhausting orgy. The breathing was so vivid, dear listener, I swear I could smell the 'Bee O' in the theater. 

And now we get to Ian McKellen's song, as Gus, the theater cat. Even more than Dame Judy, Sir Ian clearly takes this very, very, seriously. And bless him, the greatest King Lear ever caught on video makes all kinds of thespian meows and purrs and caterwauls, he even laps water out of a bowl with his tongue while standing on two legs. Outside of the song, half his lines in this movie are so overacted that they cant be understood. But the true piece du resistance is right at the end of this song, the moment of this movie that truly made me cry-laugh. The cat audience so appreciates McKellan's performance that they don't cheer with applause or bravos or even woos, a hundred cats all wail rawaawawwwwrr! That is the moment when I realized I wasn't just seeing a typical terrible movie. This is a once in a generation movie! The kind of failure that can only be created by geniuses. 

And then comes Skimbelshank the railway cat, and in some ways it's the best of all the numbers, frenetic as a train, actual momentum, relatively clever lyrics, even a relatively complex rhythm in the bridge, the only problem is that when the Cats come to the railroad, they are suddenly one-third their size, no larger than rats in relation to the rails. 

And finally, we come to Taylor Swift, the alleged star of the show if one believed the billing. Reclining in a chez longe made to look like a golden moon, and sprinkling what is literally EXPLODING CAT NIP on all the Jellicle cats who are literally tranced and brainwashed into temporarily becoming Taylor Swift dancers. Taylor sings not of herself, but of McCavity, who somehow does not have much song of his own, but it doesn't really tell us much about McCavity. So if we never learn who McCavity is, what hope have we to learn who T-Swift is either? All we know is that Taylor Swift's cat cleavage is, for whatever reason, massive and generously areolaed, except in close-up shot, where nipples completely vanish, and yet again begs the question: WHY DO THESE CATS HAVE TWO NIPPLES?!?

We finally get to the weenie or MacGuffin of the whole thing. McCavity kidnapped all the other competing cats so that he will win the Jellicle Ball, some criminal mastermind this guy...  The annual Jellicle Ball determines which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer. What is the Heaviside Layer you ask?.....

Don't...

And when Old Deuteronomy doesn't choose McCavity, he kidnaps her to the same barge to which all the other singing cats disapparated and McCavity makes 'Deuteronomy' walk the plank...

And yet, a full five minutes later, when it comes time for Magical Mr. Mestopheles to apparat her back, she is yet alive and not even wet, perhaps she finagled her way out of walking the plank to its edge, but we never find out how. Magical Mr. Mespheles is apparently clever enough to transport cats from the middle of the Thames to somewhere around Leicester Square, but is he really clever enough to effect bodily resurrection from afar? Not to mention that over the course of the song Mr. Mestopheles sings about how he's black from the top of his ears to the tip of his tail, and all the while HE IS CLEARLY MOSTLY WHITE! Not to mention the problems of continuity shots - there's one shot where a Cat is holding a hat in her hand, only to cut to a side shot where she's holding the SAME HAT IN HER MOUTH! Not to mention yet again the issue of Jason Derulo's musical hamminess. While everybody is singing "Oh, well I never was there ever, a cat so clever as Magical Mr. Mestopheles," he literally goes on his own falsetto solo in the middle of a unison chorus... After the reappearance of Old Deuteronomy, Mr. Mestophelees literally makes all the cards and instruments and flowers in the room float through the air as he flies though it. What a moment of triumph...

Finally, we return to Jennifer Hudson's snot. What does Memories have to do with the rest of Cats?... Well... What does any song in this movie have to do with any other? After four experiences in the theater, I have absolutely no idea what Memories is about. Traditionally, the point of music theater songs is that they can't just exist on their own, they have to move the plot forward or else they halt the plot completey. BUT WHAT PLOT DOES CATS HAVE?!? And then, of course in the middle of the song there's(THX)

So inevitably Jennifer Hudson's outcast cat is the Jellicle Choice. Why? Because she can sing loud. She makes her way to the hot-air balloon to ascend to the Heaviside layer. So what is the reward that Idris Elba and James Corden and Rebel Wilson and IanMcKellen sought so fervently? It is, very simply, A PAGAN SACRIFICE!!! Jennifer Hudson ascends to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn, the moment before the movie ends, she disappears in a twinkle of light, presumably in the same moment when she suffocates from the lack of oxygen in the Earth's upper atmosphere. 

But not before Judi Dench imparts a bizarrely long homily to the audience about how to address a cat atop one of the lions of Trafalgar Square. The moral of this story: (original cast recording of 'a cat is not a dog'). Which is then repeated at blazing fortissimo by feline Nuremberg. ('a cat is not a dog').

This movie is so bad that it is one of the best movies I've ever seen. It could only be made by a great director, and Tom Hooper is a truly great director. Not of movies per se, but of TV miniseries there's hardly anyone better in the world. He is perhaps the first ever director of  'expressionist historical fiction.' The costumes and history are real, but everything is so bizarrely off-puttingly filmed that it's jarring in a way costume dramas have never been in the stuffy old days. His most famous movie is The King's Speech, but his masterpiece is John Adams, a seven-episode HBO recreation of Colonial America that so far as I know has never been bettered on celluloid. This is history as it always should be, and yet he persists in making really, really, really terrible musicals....

Long may he continue making them! If they are all as bad as Cats, they are worthy of the most honored place in film history. Cats is one of the worst movies ever directed, ever produced, ever seen. May we have a hundred more like it! 







Saturday, January 4, 2020

I've Seen Cats Four Times - How is CATS a Thing?


"Where the hell are the singing Cats?" 1993, David Letterman's first episode on CBS. Twenty-six and a half years ago, Cats was such an astonishingly common reference point in the American carnival that David Letterman could use Paul Newman to pull off an astonishing comic bait-and-switch in an extremely crucial episode for him, and everybody in America knew that 'the Singing Cats' was talking about this infected zit on the lip of Broadway that's run for nearly forty years...

Why was Cats a mega-hit? I have no idea except to say that it was sprinkled with that magic dust with which Andrew Lloyd Webber sparked his astonishing run of success. At the heart of Webber's musical talent, if it can be said to have one, is a real melodic gift. There's no question, his shows are proscenium slope-to-slope packed with tunes, are they great tunes? Well, it probably depends on whom you ask. I wouldn't say so, but even so, it's a real gift. Ask any composer how easy it is to come up with a melody, they don't grow on trees for most of us. But even if these are real melodies and astonishingly progenitive, they are so maddeningly catchy because they're not exactly complex melodies. They are so easy to remember that they're grating. Compare one of the most memorable tunes of Andrew Lloyd Webber (up to 0:40), it's the definition of four-square, eight completely symmetrical bars, the harmonies are just as predictable, not a surprise anywhere to be found. You'll find the same predictability in Close Every Door to Me or Don't Cry for Me Argentina. Now compare it with probably the most famous melody of his contemporary, Paul McCartney . (up to 0:24) A seven bar asymetrical melody, preceded by a three bar introduction, with chromatic walking bass line,  and then the intrusion of a string quartet. When it comes to musical creativity, this is the real thing.

 Andrew Lloyd Webber is extremely competent at what he does. Is it artistically creative? Well... not really.  It's generic purveyance of maddeningly catchy earworms with electronic scores and simple syncopations that sound uncannily like soft rock, Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, and yes, Billy Fucking Joel. Rock music completely defanged of its subversion, mass marketed and pastiched for an audience who thinks that everything in the world is just fine. The absence of musical content tarted up with literally millions of dollars strewn about the stage. The Broadway truism of the time was that you went home from Andrew Lloyd Webber shows singing the scenery. The true genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals was not Webber or his lyricist Tim Rice, it was producers like Cameron Mackintosh and Bill Kenright, who perceived within the mindnumping catchiness of Webber's melodies a blank slate on which they could mount an unpredictable theater experience that is truly cinematic, with music and lyrics that are just barely good enough to support such high concept theatrical machines without drawing attention to themselves. It's also precisely what made Michael Jackson and Madonna, the true genius in their songs is not the songs but the videos which accompanied their release, and what you're remembering in their songs is not just the music itself, but the recall of the entire visual production. And so successful was this deceptive formula that after a not entirely successful run of shows that included Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita, the Webber juggernaut realized that so based was their formula on production design that they could literally make a review show about cats with no plot whatsoever, and it would be a bigger hit than West Side Story or Gypsy. 

To be an unassailable success, production, not substance, is what it took to distinguish oneself artistically in late 20th century Anglophonia. Here's the first two paragraphs of Frank Rich's 1982 review, back when nobody knew he had a political thought in his head, and he was merely the New York Times' theater critic, known as 'The Butcher of Broadway.' And yet butcher Cats he didn't really. Quote:

THERE'S a reason why ''Cats,''... is likely to lurk around Broadway for a long time - and it may not be the one you expect.
It's not that this collection of anthropomorphic variety turns is a brilliant musical or that it powerfully stirs the emotions or that it has an idea in its head. Nor is the probable appeal of ''Cats'' a function of the publicity that has accompanied the show's every purr since it first stalked London 17 months ago. No, the reason why people will hunger to see ''Cats'' is far more simple and primal than that: it's a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theater and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of ''Cats,'' it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.
'...Rarely exists in the theater... 'why is that? Because theater is not movies, and most attempts to make theater to look realistically high concept is a disaster. Obviously there are exceptions. But would it add anything to the experience if we the storm in King Lear had real water and we felt the wind blow? When the statue in Don Giovanni sends the titular antagonist to hell, would it really be any more frightening if we saw hell? The music in Don Giovanni already does such heavy lifting, all the stage needs to make it work is a trap door! Sweeney Todd's had a whole series huge, grandly operatic productions, but I can't imagine any Sweeney Todd was more devastating than the one I saw in London, 2004, which took place in a theater barely the size of a small lecture hall, every singer played an instrument to accompany the other singers, and the staging was as abstract as it is in any Greek drama. Theater as the long tradition of poetics always understood it has its roots as a religious rite for the worship of the Greek gods, and its synergy comes from the faith it generates within the audience that we are conjuring a different reality through incredibly false means. It was a much more complex vision of worship than much of what we have in today's monotheism, but that transubtantiation is at the essence of so many of the most basic religious rites, not just in the obvious - the Catholic Eucharist or Communion, but in any nearly element of Jewish Passover Seder which asks its participants to do nothing less than transcend time to partake in ancient acts of Jewish history through religious symbols, or even in the Islamic prohibition of images of the Prophet or Allah. In all three religions, the issue at stake is the belief that the most banal material can very easily become transcendent. It's all pure theater, but theater, good theater, and there's no better theater than religion, is very very real to the people convinced to believe in it. All of this partakes of the same process that Catholics call transubstantiation in which what was a moment ago completely terrestrial and humdrum becomes divine and of a different world.

But movies have their roots in science, the manipulation of light, which was once thought divine, by electricity, the forces of the divine given measurable scientific form. Movies are already take place in a fake space, so on a movie screen, the more they can convince us the effects are real, the more vivid our experience. Movies can take us to faraway fantasy lands, but admittedly with a lot of exceptions, particularly in movies early days, the fantasy must look plausible. If the space effects in Star Wars and the alternate universe of Lord of the Rings looked implausible, we would laugh at them. If the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park and the Terminator did not move as though they could jump out of the screen, we would never be scared. And if the violence in The Godfather or Raging Bull or Schindler's List looked fake, we would never remember these movies. Imagine a fake looking desert in Lawrence of Arabia or The Searchers, imagine a Psycho that isn't cut quickly enough between shots to hide the fact that you don't see the knife going in. The effects in movies are so little unless we believe we've actually seen the real thing.

But the realness of theater is right in front you, you need fantasy for theater to work, and for better or worse, nothing exists more in the land of the imagination than singing cats... I've never seen the show live, I can't imagine I'd like it much, but I completely understand why people do. Theater needs us to suspend disbelief, and nothing makes us acclimate to the suspension of disbelief so quickly as... (Jellicle Ball... to 1:15)

But even a show that's good theater doesn't have to be anywhere near this stupid. How the fuck did a show this dumb ever sustain the cash flow year after year of a small country? The answer is that the economics of theater, the economics of America itself, demanded mega-production on a scale unextant before the oil crisis of 1973. In a balanced national economy, during a period when the world was so imbalanced that America controlled more than 50% of the world's GDP and a large American middle class was unassailably secure, it was very easy to make productions of middling expense, a success would make a medium amount of money, a failure would lose a medium amount of money, and whether the play ran for a week or a year, you would simply move onto the next show. But by the mid-70s, all that was over, and shows which failed stood to lose so much money that you had to bet everything on every show, because as always in the arts, some shows are guar,anteed to fail, and therefore every success must recoup the costs of the failures. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber had two failures during the 70s when it seemed as though he could do no wrong! Therefore, these enormous investments require concepts that keep these millions of dollars as absolutely safe as can be. So rather than tell any number of astonishingly subversive stories, we get a musical about: (Mr. Mistophelees up to 2:13)

Cats is still on Broadway, thirty-eight years into its run, but as a whole, the world basically forgot about Cats, and there is so... little... reason... to remember it! Cats was a product of 1980, everything about it is bad David Bowie. The score is B-level synth pop, the costumes Ziggy Stardust with fur. It has no discernible plot, no discernible character development, virtually every song is based on an introduction to a different cat, and practically every cat is based on a cat pun (extra points if you get the pun in that sentence...). THAT IS THE ENTIRETY OF THE SHOW! IT IS LITERALLY A SHOW ABOUT CAT PUNS, AND IT'S RUN FOR NEARLY FORTY YEARS!

So yes, I saw Cats four times. Why? Because it's there! It is far and away my favorite movie this year.  No movie this year was as good as Cats was bad! It is a failure of genius, it took the most astonishing artistic risks and failed at every... single... one of them. I have also failed to see Cats twice. One time the movie had so many technical gliches that i took it as a sign it was bad juju to see such a terrible movie again, and I walked out. I then went to the theater to see it another four times. 

I was also thrown out of another showing....  my second that day. You heard both halves of that sentence correctly.... What happened was that I snuck a computer into Cats earlier that to take notes because, obviously, after all this, I had to do a podcast on Cats. I snuck the computer in again tonight to take more notes on whatever I had missed the first time, and considering that most of the last viewing was spent looking at my computer, it's highly likely that there was more to find out. So I go back late that night, and everything goes according to plan, no computer check even though I'd gotten so cocky that it's not even a bag, I just tucked it under the flap of my coat. I go into the theater, and of course a weekday 10:30 showing of a flop is utterly empty. But then, I realize, oh shit, I forgot to open the file on google where my notes are, and there's no wifi. So unless I want to take notes on my phone where the keyboard is of course extremely small, I have to go outside and ask them if there's wifi and hope that they have a sense of humor and pity. There are three at the desk, and two of them looked like they'd have been cool with it, but one of them is clearly more a stickler than the others, takes one look at me and doesn't let me go back in unless I give him the computer:
so I say: If I can't take my computer, I'm not seeing this movie, it's Cats!
he says: But this is the movie you came for!
I say I came to take notes on the movie!
Him: Why? Are you a reviewer?
... ... ... um ... yes ....
 ...Let me call the manager' says he.
(he calls the manager, the manager comes)
Manager say: It doesn't matter whether or not he says he's a reviewer, he might be here to record the movie illegally.
It's CATS!!!
 You might distract people with your typing and the light.
(beat) I'm the only person in the theater. IT'S CATS!!!!!!!!!
Manager: I'm sorry. The studio is very clear on this.
Me: Well, I'm here to write about it. If I can't write about it, there's no point in seeing the movie. You owe me a free pass.
he goes 'Alright...' and dejectedly gives me a free pass...
So I managed to stifle it until I got inside the car, but from the moment I got in I cry-laughed like Jack Nicholson's Joker for twenty minutes, and I still feel dizzy from the lack of control over my lungs.after six times in the theater I even feel like I've memorized the trailors. 

I also stayed routinely to count the credits, because the sheer amount of talent, skill, and love that went into this movie is on the same level as the Wizard of Oz. This is a perfect movie, it gets everything wrong. It takes the most astonishingly large artistic risks and fails at every single one of them! And like a great movie, its failure completely rewards repeat viewings. Any great work of art is self-renewing, every time you see it, you find new meanings, and every time I've seen Cats, I've found new ways in which this movie is risible.

Cats: the movie, cost NINETY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS! Eighteen prop dressers, twelve model drawers, five third assistant sound editors, five shooting electricians, six rigging electricians, six more electrical riggers, ten costume standbys, six seamstress, eight hair and makeup artists, seven set pa's, three dialect coaches,  three unit medics, at least seven assistant directors, four physiotherapists, four conductors, six orchestrators, eight digital animators, five visual effects producers, fice visual effects coordinators, Eric Fellner, whoever he is, has four assustants, five animation supervisors, twelve animation supervisors, twelve effects production managers, a couple hundred digital artists with twelve department heads, and roughly a hundred forty other special effects artists. And literally at least a thousand or many more visual effects supervisors. There's even a cat movement speiualist! And all of this for a musical about cat puns!

I could take us through every song in this musical and show how stupid it is, but what of the movie itself?