By the seventh time I hear the cast of Cats singing about Skimbleshanks the railway cat in the space of one day, I long for the train to run Skimbleshanks over, splitting him and his red dungarees in half. It's about 9.30 PM and I've been confined to my living room since 8.15 this morning, repeatedly watching the Andrew Lloyd Webber big-screen disaster because, in these cursed plague times, what else is there to do?
The £81 million movie adaptation of the stage musical Cats made headlines in December 2019 because it was bad. It is the only film the Telegraph has ever given zero stars. And it's been in the news again this month: the friend of a VFX producer who worked on the film alleges that some of the cats' anuses were removed from the film in post-production, allowing the internet to froth at the mouth for the uncensored “butthole cut”. The theatrical cut – i.e. sans visible sphincters – has just been made available online. And, having now seen it more often than anyone apart from the people who were in it, I can report that no quantity of anuses would have stopped Cats being comparable to a war crime.
The coronavirus lockdown is the perfect environment in which to revisit Cats. The film’s baffling, disorientating quality befits this unique juncture in time. Coronavirus has caused chaos. Much of the last few years has been chaos. Cats, a film that is 110 minutes of shrieking chaos, may be the most appropriate film to watch right now because it seems to proudly make as little sense as the era that birthed it. Releasing it online just as we are all unable to leave our homes seems is an act of sadism I can’t help but admire. (When else would you watch Cats except when you couldn’t physically go anywhere?) I think there are people who will watch it at home and never be seen again.
I strap in and calmly prepare for the worst.
From the outset there's an enormous question mark hanging over the film, which is: why should we care? It features megastars like Taylor Swift, Idris Elba and James Corden, but why should we give a shit about the plot, which is about which of the “Jellicle cats” (no idea, even after seven viewings) will be chosen by ancient feline Judi Dench to embark on a new life somewhere called the “Heaviside Layer”. You’d think the songs would make up for it. But then you'd also think that no big-budget studio production could get away with devoting five minutes to a song about a cat who works on a train, who had never been mentioned before this and is never mentioned again.
In my first viewing, the virus a distant hum in the background, my concerns are about the scale of the cats – why they are so goddamn small? – and how bad so many of the lines are (“ so first your memory I'll jog / and say, 'a cat is not a dog’”)? That line would be unbearable in any context, but now imagine it a) sung by Judi Dench – who can sing neither in time nor in tune, but it's not like she's playing a principal role in a multimillion-pound musical – and b) at the very climax of the film, in a song that is exclusively about the right way to address a cat.
The whole thing, in fact, is a bit like waking up bound and gagged in a sixth-form musical theatre lesson. The film also seems to be obsessed with groins in the way that teenagers tend to be. I'm so glad this film bombed, I think.
As the day outside my flat becomes tauntingly beautiful, three viewings turn into four, turn into five. I find myself immunised against the film's offensive illogicalities. I no longer think it's odd that one of the lines about Macavity is “you would know him if you saw him” but two of the characters see him up close and don't recognise him. I begin to accept that cats have human hands. I no longer narrow my eyes when Rebel Wilson unzips her fur not once but twice, and eats several cockroaches with human faces alive. I try to remain vigilant for pixelated buttholes but keep getting distracted. The Cats virus has forced its way into my mind.
There are chinks of light: Ian McKellen sings a touching song about his theatrical heyday and, I have to confess, the sight of James Corden landing balls-first on the rim of a bin makes me laugh, even seven times in. But what's remarkable is that there are still things – basic things – that I don't understand after seven viewings. One of them is “What the hell are they saying in this song?” but another is “Why don't these people look more ashamed?”
The film ploughs on as I draw my curtains and updates about the virus continue to filter into the real world. Photos of barren city streets are all over the news. I can't help myself finding an eerie parallel in Cats' depiction of London, quiet and deserted. Could this film have… predicted the coronavirus? Was it a warning? No. Ridiculous. But maybe… maybe Cats was the virus all along. It arrived in December 2019. It united the world to fight against it. And it's much, much worse than we could possibly have imagined.