A film critic investigates whether bong hits of Tangerine Dream can “unlock” some deeper pleasures within a critical failure of a film
In a memorable 1968 pan published in the The Village Voice, film critic Andrew Sarris wrote off Stanley’s Kubrick’s “ultimate trip” film, 2001: A Space Odyssey as “a thoroughly uninteresting failure.”
A few weeks later, Sarris revisited the film under the influence of what he called “a smoked substance” — he meant marijuana. And this time, the critic called 2001 “a major work by a major artist.” What was previously “a mishmash of psychedelic self-indulgence” was suddenly “beautifully modulated and controlled to express its director’s vision of a world to come seen through the sensibility of a world past.”
The weed, in Sarris’s experience, did not merely elevate the experience of Kubrick’s film. It unlocked it.
Enter Tom Hooper’s new fantastical CGI abomination Cats, which has been variously described as “trippy” and even “an acid trip.” (At the risk of impugning such critics with bad faith, I’m fairly certain nobody who describes films that way has ever taken the drugs in question.)
It’s like watching a bright, expensive screensaver programmed by a demented theatre kid who was also a sociopath.
Tweaked by some bong-loads of Tangerine Dream, my partner and I headed out to see the new movie. It’s based on a well-regarded stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, itself based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a 1939 light poetry collection by T.S. Eliot. A truly stupid and hideous film — which has so far made, like, basically no money — Cats’s ostensible appeal has as much to do with that of its source musical as its new construction: Name actors and pop stars such as Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Dame Judi Dench, and James Corden are all digitally rendered as computer-generated felines.
Hooper’s previous movie-musical, the 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables, was noted for recording its performers’ vocal takes live on set, lending the musical numbers a measure of strained authenticity. Here, he takes the opposite tack. Nothing looks or feels real. Nothing has any weight, or possesses any gravity, physical or emotional. It’s like watching a bright, expensive screensaver programmed by a demented theatre kid who was also a sociopath. Cats does, if literally nothing else, look weird: a mix between those motion capture Robert Zemeckis movies like The Polar Express, that old Microsoft 3D Moviemaker kids’ game, and a deep-cut Brazzers title micro-targeted to furry fetishists.
Stoned, that creepiness is almost certainly intensified, playing into what critic J. Hoberman, in his 2013 “Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned,” described as the “state of acute defamiliarization mixed with heightened idiocy” that often defines stoned moviegoing.
The problem — well, beyond Cats being ugly and hard to follow — is that this sense of defamiliarization cannot sustain itself. I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s recent The Irishman, which uses newfangled digital technology to “de-age” its cast of aging thespians. The effect is jarring, and even a bit disgusting at first. But you sort of get used to it, and accept the film’s reality, such as it is.
But in Cats, certain sequences produce feelings of baffled disbelief, including one in which Rebel Wilson’s kitty munches on digital cockroaches (which, for some godforsaken reason, also have human faces). Or when Dench’s Old Deuteronomy looks straight at the camera (a gesture that implicates the audience in her own embarrassment in way which, I suppose, faithfully evokes the experience of live stage musicals) evokes the sort of “What the hell am I watching?!” feeling that can make the film feel, if only intermittently, “trippy.”
Mostly it is just very tedious, with sequence after sequence of bad-looking human-feline hybrids introducing themselves to one another.
That said, I’ve always thought the so-called “stoner movie” was a dull category. There’s something vaguely embarrassing about getting ripped to the lids and watching, say, Dude, Where’s My Car or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, precisely because their humour is deliberately calibrated to appeal to dizzied, giddy mind of the pot-smoker. It’s pandering. And the sense of low-key humiliation is only deepened by the fact that, so often, it works — that these movies reliably produce sustained waves of titillated, Beavis-like giggling, because they’re so funny when, and perhaps only when, you’re high.
Better, in my experiences, are the films which feel somehow “unlocked,” as 2001 was for Andrew Sarris. I once wept while watching The New World, the romantic epic by Terrance Malick (himself, it’s rumoured, a prodigious stoner), while high. And I have never been more viscerally terrified than I was smoking a joint to myself while watching the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre alone in the dark of a dumpy Montreal apartment. Watching a stoner movie while stoned feels too easy, like you’re slipping to meet the film on its level. Getting stoned and watching movies less consciously devised reveals new layers, new levels.
I have little doubt that, in due time, Cats will be recuperated in certain circles as a “so-bad-it’s-good” cult classic, and a object of deep academic interest, parsing its bizarre post-human affect. But none of those things change the fact that it’s just not very fun to watch.
It is, admittedly, interesting to see Cats, an utter failure on its own terms, recuperated as an object of bizarre curiosity in real time, during its initial theatrical run. Usually, this process of reclaiming takes years. I guess we have the internet to thank for that. And, in some small way, I’m sure weed helps.
Ellis Webb is a pseudonym. Subscribe to the Cannabis Post newsletter.
Written by Kate Robertson