At a late-night screening of “Cats” (2019), there are exactly four rules that audiences must hold sacrosanct. First, judgment and jerkiness are the sole unwelcome visitors to this party — all who enter this hallowed space must respect the manner in which their fellow audience members are compelled to act. The Somerville Theatre’s second rule would make “The Room” (2003) fans shake their spoons in discontent: Projectiles are forbidden, so anyone hoping to fling some kitty litter will have to retract their claws. Third, all on-screen appearances of the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) are to be greeted with a hiss. Fourth, and so help you Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) if you ever forget this hallowed tenet: A cat is NOT a dog.
Since its trailers permanently seared their cursed images onto our corneas this summer, “Cats” has occupied a place in cultural consciousness unbefitting of a mere movie. You can choose to ignore a movie; you can resist its curated enticements for you to step closer and investigate further. “Cats” cannot be ignored. No matter your age, background or beliefs, “Cats” demands a response. At its arbitrarily-edited hodgepodge of human and feline anatomy, we recoiled together in terror. We shared Jason Derulo’s outrage at the studio execs’ Orwellian erasure of his Rum Tum Tugger. We let Taylor Swift sail lustily around our heads, took one sniff of her catnip and got hooked.
Through half-covered eyes, we watched this furry fantasia careen sideways at full speed into the finish line of the 2010s. Critics attempted to intellectualize the carnage, to glue together some scattered bits of meaning scoured from the ninth circle of its Lovecraftian horror scape. Some tried to assign neat labels to this phenomenon — it was christened “a furries-and-musicals PornHub channel” and “a musical version of ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau‘” (1996). But “Cats,” with the haughty flippancy of Ian McKellen hissing Ray Winstone down the plank of a trash barge on the Thames, eludes these definitions.
Reading about “Cats” is like dancing about trench warfare. No linguistic feat could even break the skin of its body of depravity. One must live through “Cats” not to understand it, but to grasp the impenetrable permanence of its incomprehensibility. “Cats” will be beamed into the Heaviside Layer and cause any alien civilization advanced and unlucky enough to decipher its atomic formulas to self-destruct. By the end times, “Cats” will have taken on its own mass and grown large enough to swallow the entire universe as if it’s Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) chomping down on a horrifyingly anthropomorphic roach.
The psychological burden of “Cats” is far too heavy to bear alone. Its moral darkness cannot be exposed to sunlight, lest its insidious essence turns the sun black. In the month since it was unleashed upon humankind, “Cats” has already surveyed its claim in the landscape of midnight cinema. It joins movies like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) in these legendary annals. Calling these films “bad” feels entirely beside the point. Surely, we tell ourselves, someone has sown a deeper truth, a portal to a higher stratum of human intellect, somewhere inside this sensory gauntlet.
To discover this diamond in the dung, we must immerse ourselves in these movies. Long after the sun dips below the horizon, we don our animatronic cat ears and paint whiskers on our faces. Before the curtain raises, we rack our brains for hidden fonts of knowledge of feline cinematic history. And when the lights dim low and the Jellicle Moon rises, we smash ourselves through the fourth wall as if propelled by a spiritual zeal for revelation. We sing along and unabashedly shout out our existential supplications. The restorative embrace of the Heaviside Layer lifts us from our seats.
“Cats” is a religious movement in its infancy, so its rituals have yet to be codified. Should we bring tissues to aid Grizzabella (Jennifer Hudson) when her mucous membranes are overcome with regret and despair? Should we oil our bodies to glisten like the lithe Macavity, in the hope that we may harness some of his beguiling sexual energy? As time passes, these truths will gradually unspool, just as a ball of yarn’s charms are best enjoyed slowly. For now, we will continue this cosmic journey through midnight ceremonies the world over, harmonizing our voices in wonder and awe of the Jellicle Moon. The Jellicle Choice is made just once per year, but therein lies the irresistible hope that will bring each of us back to “Cats” again and again: that maybe, just maybe, this time I will finally realize what all of it means.