Unlike dogs, whose rather limited range of representation I discussed last week, cats have enjoyed a rather expansive set of characteristics in films. Cats are often cast as mischievous devices for anything from comedy to horror, as in That Darn Cat and Alien. They’re also signifiers of villainy, as represented by the James Bond series, or simply assholes, as Cats & Dogs, Garfield, and the Internet will tell you. Felines have also shown versatility in becoming that most aspired of categories, hep. In short, cats, with their forceful personalities and independent spirits, have a range of uses in films.
But, like the dogs of art cinema, the cats of indie filmmaking show a notably more extensive range of uses an investments in the potential roles of cats in cinema as extended from the complex roles they take in their owners’ lives. Where Hollywood cats typically serve as villains, comic setpieces, narrative devices, untrustworthy guides, or grating protagonists, some cats in independent films illuminate deeper connections between humans and their finickiest of friends – or, at least, do the exact same thing Hollywood does with cats, but differently.
Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices is one of the most unnerving, pull-no-punches portrayals of mental illness I’ve ever seen on screen. The film accomplishes this in large part by its comic tone, which it freely mixes with grisly, sudden moments of unhinged violence whenever the carefully maintained façade that button-pusher Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) has constructed for his life begins to be threatened. Most of the movie is seen through Jerry’s raddled psyche, and it’s portrayed in such a way that allows a viewer to completely understand why Jerry would rather reside in a world of mental delusion than face the ugly reality of his life.
Central to the film are Jerry’s cat, Mr. Whiskers, and dog, Bosco, both voiced by Reynolds. Each animal functions as two extremes of his conscience, with Mr. Whiskers egging him on to do bad deeds, insisting that evil is an essential part of his character, and Bosco earnestly but naïvely assuring Jerry that he’s good at his core. These interactions are clever and sometimes hilarious, elevating the film beyond received talking animal conventions while working from personality types that we stereotypically associate with dogs and cats. But what’s most striking is when Jerry’s mind goes sober, and suddenly Mr. Whiskers and Bosco are revealed to simply be two domestic animals forced to reside in hellish conditions with a man in serious need of help.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Few films have developed a cat into a multi-dimensional character quite like the orange cat in the Coens’ portrait of artistic malaise against the backdrop of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. The cat, or cats, that Davis (Oscar Isaac) temporarily adopts serve as a desperate manifestation of his personality, something tangible in a world in which everything continually slips away from him. The cats are anchors for the film’s funniest and most heartbreaking moments.
When Davis loses his driver to a fight with the cops while on the road between Chicago and New York, he – after days of disappointment and frustration – abandons the cat, now a weight that reminds him of his failure. The look on the cat’s eyes before Davis – only somewhat reluctantly – slams the car door in its face is a serious contender for one of the most affecting human-animal moments in any film.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson has killed a number of dogs in his films, like Buckley in The Royal Tenenbaums and Snoopy in Moonrise Kingdom. But The Grand Budapest Hotel is (if memory serves me right) the first and so far only time Anderson has sent a domestic feline to an untimely demise. Jeff Goldblum’s sympathetic Deputy Kovacs – a lawyer trying to do his job as executor of Madame D’s (Tilda Swinton) will, but caught up in a family war – meets one of the more grisly fates in a film whose whimsy hardly prevents it from delving into the horrors of a Europe brimming with fascist energy.
When meeting with pseudo-Nazis Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) who insist upon receiving the beloved painting “Boy With Apple,” they respond to Kovacs’s modest pleads for respecting the unbiased legal process by casually throwing his cat out the window, an action executed so swiftly that he (and the audience) have barely realized what occurred until the deed has been completed. The shot of Dafoe throwing the cat out the window lands with notable comic force, but the ensuing reverse shot of Kovacs looking out the window to see the damage – a blunt, grisly image whose distance doesn’t detract from the striking casualty of the violence – puts any humor in the moment into stark relief, which nicely sums up the tone of Grand Budapest in total, a film about the meeting of whimsical nostalgia with a harsh, uncompromising reality.
It’s also a nice reverse from the tradition of using cats as villains or props for villains – instead, the villain’s disdain, not embrace of the cat is the sign of his villainy.
As evident in a wide range of films including Bringing Up Baby, The Jungle Book, Cat People, and The Hangover, big and wild cats have been an object of fascination in cinema as much as their smaller, domesticated counterparts. Yet even when such cats are shown as objects of fear, they are almost invariably represented as a containable threat – a force to be tamed, recklessly but harmlessly played with, or successfully escaped from.
Roar (which I unfortunately can’t yet speak from the perspective of actually having seen in full) reveals the falsehood of our cinematic depictions of big cats, the safeness that trained animals allow even in carefully constructed representations of danger. In making this all-but-forgotten film (being re-released by Drafthouse Films later this month), Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall cast the animals on their own wildlife reserve into a fictional film. However, judging by the trailer, a documentary element comes through that reveals how one can never expect wild cats to conform to the language and order requisite of narrative filmmaking. Roar is itself a document of the danger of its making.
And as any owner of even a small feline would attest, cats are not something you should fuck with.