Cats (2019)

A tribe of cats must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life

Somebody who saw the movie before me said “it helps if you know that the Cats are competing in a contest of singing about their lives to see who gets to go up in a hot air balloon and die and then get reborn with a new life.”  That does help.

A critical failure can be kind of fun, even a badge of honor, but a colossal financial failure is bad.  That makes everyone uncomfortable.

I kind of enjoyed my experience of the movie, I wasn’t bored.  Several people in my theater (at The Grove) were straight up bawling crying with real emotion, both during “Memory” and during the song Dame Judi Dench sings about growing old (“Finale: The Ad-Dressing of Cats”).  I myself was quite moved.  I’d never seen Cats the musical and didn’t know much about it.  I was struck that this was really kind of a veiled story about city lowlifes and pimps and shady customers and dramatic sad sacks, and theater kids.  It’s about finding redemption for a squandered or spent life?  The setting appeared to be something like London’s West End and Trafalgar Square.

It’s almost silly to talk about what went wrong with this movie.  When Idris Elba is dancing and his genitals are either tucked into a suit or disguised with some kind of CGI, so he doesn’t even have normal cat genitals, that’s a jarring image, certainly, and takes one out of the film.

Francesca Hayward, the Kenyan-born dancer who plays White Cat, the star or at least our guide through this thing, is an amazingly gifted dancer and performer.  Probably.  It sounds like it, I can’t really say, because this movie hits at level of fakiness where I can’t really tell what’s her, and what’s faked.  I can see how that might sound “cool” in conception but in reality it just robs me of seeing human talent.

Why didn’t they just assemble this amazing cast of talented actors for about thirty days and then have them put on a simple production of Cats in a big empty warehouse?  It would’ve been much more engaging to see what these performers can really do, to see what they might bring out in each other, to see what kind of magic they can make just with their bodies and voices.  I suspect the answer to why they didn’t do that is:

1) they didn’t trust an audience would consider that spectacular, new, unique enough for a movie

and

2) it would’ve been too hard.

The makers of this movie didn’t trust an audience, they assumed we could be easily fooled by manipulated computer-designed imagery that’s not “cheap” in terms of money but is cheap in terms of artistry.  That, to me, explains some of the reaction this movie.  These people think we’re fools.  Whoever (and I guess we have to say “director Tom Hooper”) made this movie didn’t go forward to make something they themselves would find really cool and impressive and special, just the way they’d like to see the story told, and then struggle to achieve that vision, and then share it with us.  Instead, the makers set out to fake us out with tricks that we know are tricks, and they know are tricks.  It’s disrespectful, and that’s shameful.

How great would it have been to actually stage Cats with Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson and James Corden and Ian McKellan and Dame Judi Dench, stripped down if necessary, and just show us the results?  But that’s too hard, they never could’ve convinced those actors, they never could’ve gotten the scheduling right, to do that would’ve been an act of absurd daring and ambition.  So instead they just threw money at it and made something cheap and gaudy and unconvincing.  The result is kind of like being a kid and being taken to Disneyland and your divorced dad is buying everything but he’s on his phone the whole time.  You know you aren’t being given anything of real value.

Money is cheap in movies.  It’s not impressive.  Making an expensive movie is easy, Hollywood does it all the time.  Talent and vision and effort and energy and collaboration are what’s rare.  That’s what’s impressive.  Some of that actually shines through the movie of Cats, despite everything.

I thought James Corden did a heroic job, a true showman.  And Laurie Davidson as Mir. Mistoffelees was great.

I compared a few of the songs to the Broadway versions and preferred the movie versions. (Compare, for instance, Corden’s Bustopher Jones).

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.

That’s what Frank Rich said back in 1982.  These days movie audiences are REGULARLY transported to complete fantasy worlds that could only exist in the movies.  Why mess around with trying to translate a magical theater experience to that?  (Deadline highlights the obvious reasons: good track record of musicals for Universal, incredible cast, huge hit IP, etc).

Maybe that was the mistake of the movie, to try and duplicate the massive transformation the show did to a theater to something a movie could do.  To do that, while also showing you the faces of these beloved actors, was maybe just a mismatch?

And also the plot is very strange.  It’s funny, almost one of the lessons of Cats the Broadway sensation is that people can go along with a pretty dense internal logic without a lot of handholding provided there’s a lot of intense longing, empathy, nostalgia, vivid expressions of where characters are coming from.  However many million people who enjoyed Cats the show just accepted the many uses of the word “jellicle” and went along.  People will do that, if the vision is coherent!  Fairy tales are full of that kind of buy-in.  Maybe the filmmaking team just lost their confidence somewhere along the way.  I’m made to understand they actually added more of a plot, for the movie.

The Financial Times liked the film!  I give it a B+.  I’m not here to poo on things, it was a fun early afternoon.

Reader Dan G comments:

To me it seems likely “they” made the choices they made in good faith, with high hopes and something just didn’t quite work. Happens all the time.

I agree!


The only UNESCO World Heritage site in French Polynesia

is the Marae at Taputapuātea on Ra’iātea Island.  It doesn’t really look like much now to be honest.  The only other people there on a visit last spring were a few white tourists getting what sounded like a pretty tedious lecture in French.  Two guards were chilling under a tree.  When I sort of tentatively started to walk on the marae’s volcanic rock base, one of the guards gave me a whistle and like a don’t do that gesture, but didn’t bother getting up.

But that’s 2019.  We have to picture the marae as it was, when it was at its most magnificent.  Covered with vines, when the great drums sounded:

Marae became fearful places.  They were dark, shaded by groves of sacred trees… People spoke of these places as the jawbones of the gods, biting the spirits who passed into the dark underworld where they were consumed by the gods while the stone uprights on their pavements were called their niho or teeth

High priests told the early missionary John Osmond:

Terrible were the marae of the royal line, their ancestral and national mare!  They were places of stupendous silence, terrifying and awe-inspiring places of pain to the priest, to the owners, and to all the people.  It was dark and shadowy among the great trees of those marae.

After raids:

canoes beached by the marae, wailing conch trumpets sounded, and the heads and genitals of their most high-ranking victims were tightly bound with the multi-coloured plait sennit of the god, destroying the mana (ancestral power) and fertility of their lineages and districts.  Some of these corpses were hung up in the sacred trees, while others were used as canoe rollers

So tells Dame Professor Anne Salmond in her book:

I looked forward to reading the rest of Dame Professor Salmond’s book, it’s incredible.  She makes the point that when Europeans first made contact with Tahiti, they tended to think of it as like this unspoiled paradise.  But Polynesia was in the midst of its own turbulent history, the Europeans arrived at a particular moment in Polynesia’s development.  There’d just been a violent takeover by islanders from Bora Bora.

They weren’t waiting around for guys in ships to show up.  There was a whole scene!


John Major

stolen and cropped from Major’s wikipedia page, credit Chatham House I guess.

For whatever reason around May 2, 1997 I happened to see John Major on TV after the UK election.  Maybe it was on the nightly news.  At that time John Major was the Prime Minister, but he and his Conservative Party had just been handed a crushing defeat.

Major appeared outside the Conservative Campaign Office at 32 Smith Square the morning after the election.

via Google. The building is now, ironically, Europe House.

I couldn’t find video of his statement, but at Johnmajorarchive.com I did find text of it.  Here’s the part that struck me as a teen:

Tonight we have suffered a very bad defeat, let us not pretend to ourselves that it was anything other than what it was. Unless we accept it for what it was, and look at it, we will be less able to put it right.

We’ve lost some very good servants of the party, people who have devoted a huge amount of their life to the service of this country and to the service of this party.

We have lost, temporarily I hope, some colleagues, both senior and not so senior, who still have a lot of service to give this country and this party, and will I hope be back where they should be in the House of Commons, serving us all.

[applause]

And they lost, from what I saw of it, with a dignity which made me proud of this party.

We now have a job to do, all of us.

[phone rings in background]

They told me the technological age was a good thing

Now, John Major may not be an especially healthy figure to admire, especially for a then-17 year old American boy, I’m not saying I wasn’t unusual.  But in this particular moment, there was a dignity and something admirable in Major’s ability and willingness to not round down the magnitude of the defeat.  In his (seeming) preparedness to look what had happened in the face, and state it clearly.

Just a performance, perhaps, but sometimes the performance counts.  Maybe John Major’s a complete turd, I don’t know enough about UK politics to weigh in on his character.  All I know is I remembered the moment, maybe because being blunt about how bad things are is pretty rare from a politician.  It felt refreshing.

 


Charlie Rose Memories

 

There was a period when I was working on a novel, not working a steady job, and I figured, “I should make sure I at least hear an hour of human conversation a day.”  That was the time in my life when I watched the most Charlie Rose.

The Charlie Rose Show website used to be elegantly organized.  It’s still good, but there was a neat way it used to be indexed, there was section called like “writers on writing” I appreciated.

Charlie Rose has now been banished for his crimes which sound bad enough.  Sometimes in the wake of what’s (perhaps unfortunately) called “the MeToo movement” I hear like “well what about due process?!” or arguments along those lines.  But shouldn’t our public media gatekeeper/narrative shapers be not just merely not sex pests, but in fact above reproach?  Couldn’t we have higher standards for our public broadcasters?

This got me riled about about Brett Kavanaugh as well — like, can’t we find someone for the Supreme Court who can’t be credibly accused of anything?  I believe it is possible!

Anyway.  Here are some memories of moments on Charlie Rose that stuck in my craw:

  • The Franzen/DFW/Mark Leyner “Future of Fiction” episode
  • When John Grisham was on, and Charlie asked him “what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?”  Grisham said, “figure out where you’re going to get your paycheck from.”
  • Charlie needling David McCullough about selling the rights to John Adams to Tom Hanks.  McCullough was going on about how Hanks came to him with the book all marked up and noted, and how THAT was what convinced him.  Charlie: “But surely some money changed hands, David.”
  • Charlie would often say to a guest, who was just back from Iraq or whatever, “take me there.”  (In fact, I think Charlie himself even called attention to this technique.
  • Charlie referencing his “girlfriend”
  • In a Remembering John Updike episode, David Remnick (or maybe Updike’s editor, or both) noting that Updike wanted to “get it all down.”  Like, all of life, his every thought.  Is this a good instinct?
  • Charlie saying “c’mon, Toby” to Tobias Scheeman’s bullshit justification about why he had sex with a Papua New Guinean tribesman in Keep The River On Your Right

Annoying

I had a thought about human nature.  It has to do with people who are “annoying.”

When a person perceives they are failing to win someone over, or not connecting, often their reaction is to double down on trying to ingratiate.

They become desperate to find connection, shared humor, to offer something of value, anything, to try and repair this.

But this, to the annoyed party, only makes them more annoying.

In their fear and insecurity, the annoyer make the problem worse.

If you think you’re annoying to someone, you should back off.  This is what the annoyed wants, and it offers the best hope of eventual repair.

There might be a larger meaning here, that our frantic solutions to problems often make them worse.  When we perceive we’re causing a problem, maybe our first move should be to stop doing anything.  Withdraw, pull back, cool out, consider.  It takes great discipline to do this though, it’s very rare.

This perception comes from being on both sides, both finding someone annoying and feeling they kinda knew it and watching them overreact, and feeling more annoyed.  And from cases where I suspected I myself was found annoying, and how my urge was to “turn on the charm”!

I used Fran Drescher as a gif here because I feel like “annoying” was kind of part of her brand, but let me be clear, I don’t find Fran Drescher annoying, I think she’s cool, and one of the most gifable stars out there.


Lizzo

Lennon Photography for Wikipedia

My friend CB was visiting the other week.  He lives on a small island in Canada and, it turns out, had never heard of LIzzo.  This came up because in three Uber rides in a row here in Los Angeles, Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” played from the radio.  On the third hearing we were discussing it, and the female Uber driver asked us if we’d ever considered the lyrics.

We contemplated them together.

Why men great ’til they gotta be great?
Woo
I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch
Even when I’m crying crazy
Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me
Bling bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me
You coulda had a bad bitch, non-committal
Help you with your career just a little
You’re ‘posed to hold me down, but you’re holding me back
And that’s the sound of me not calling you back
Why men great ’til they gotta be great?
Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face
Best friend sat me down in the salon chair
Shampoo press, get you out of my hair
Fresh photos with the bomb lighting
New man on the Minnesota Vikings
Truth hurts, needed something more exciting
Bom bom bi dom bi dum bum bay
You tried to break my heart?
Oh, that breaks my heart
That you thought you ever had it
No, you ain’t from the start
Hey, I’m glad you’re back with your bitch
I mean who would wanna hide this?
I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be your side chick
I put the sing in single
Ain’t worried ’bout a ring on my finger
So you can tell your friend, “shoot your shot” when you see ’em
It’s OK, he already in my DMs
Why men great ’til they gotta be great?
Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face
Best friend sat me down in the salon chair
Shampoo press, get you out of my hair
Fresh photos with the bomb lighting
New man on the Minnesota Vikings
Truth hurts, needed something more exciting
Bom bom bi bom bi dum bum bay
I’ma hit you back in a minute
I don’t play tag, bitch, I been it
We don’t fuck with lies, we don’t do goodbyes
We just keep it pushing like aye yi yi
I’ma hit you back in a minute
I don’t play tag, bitch, I been it
We don’t fuck with lies, we don’t do goodbyes
We just keep it pushing like aye yi yi
Why men great ’til they gotta be great?
Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face
Best friend sat me down in the salon chair
Shampoo press, get you out of my hair
Fresh photos with the bomb lighting
New man on the Minnesota Vikings
Truth hurts, needed something more exciting
Bom bom bi bom bi dum bum bay
the songwriters: Jesse St John / Melissa Viviane Jefferson / Ricky Reed / Steven Cheung
On October 15, 2019 Lizzo revealed at her concert in Denver, Colorado that she lived in Aurora, Colorado for 1 year, and worked at King Soopers

photo by Plazak for Wikipedia


Pasta, Zen

Going through some photos on my phone.  Some delicious pasta I had downtown.

How about a Zen story?

from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.