In Defense of Cats (and Nonsense in Film)

I’m giving two disclaimers up front which are that 1) I do not think Cats is a good movie even though I’m about to defend it and 2) I have not seen the musical and will not be discussing its merits as an adaptation. Cool? Cool.

Prior to seeing Cats, I was amazed at how many of my friends were complaining that Cats didn’t make sense (my understanding was that the musical was pretty nonsensical to begin with). They aren’t wrong. Cats makes absolutely zero logical sense, but that they were framing that as a complaint struck me as odd because having seen the movie in all its grand absurdity and plotless visual insanity, I don’t think that was ever the point.

The idea of nonsense is what I want to talk about because there are people who are convinced this is a bad movie because of its not making logical sense, but is it bad if it was never trying to do the thing people are critiquing it for not doing? At no point does this movie even attempt to establish a logical sense for itself.

This is something I believe is a common mistake. People say a movie is bad for not being sensical even if it follows its own internal sense or intentional lack thereof. I don’t know at what point movies had to start making sense. That people will praise David Lynch for his plotless movies but make fun of something like Cats for that same reason sets a precedent that blockbuster films aren’t allowed to be avant-garde and have to follow some sort of conventional logical sense to be considered palatable.

What’s strange is that there are older, critically acclaimed blockbuster movies that don’t make logical sense. The Shining is my favorite movie of all time, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense. There’s hardly a plot, and plot is where we primarily see logical sense at play. A plot is the logical succession of events in a film, that there is a sense connecting things happening linearly in time. Those connectors either do or don’t make sense (logic is a tool for connection, after all), and I don’t think either way is good or bad. Just different.

With Cats, we no longer have recourse to logical sense because the arena in which it would exist is no longer there. There’s no logical sense to hold onto without a plot, so to use logical sense as a criterion for that sort of film is to judge it for not doing something it never set out to do. Imagine watching Mulholland Drive and saying it’s a bad movie because its plot doesn’t make logical sense. I am by no stretch of the imagination saying that Cats and Mulholland Drive are on the same level, but hopefully you get my point.

When I think we can critique a senseless movie is when it’s presented as attempting to have a plot, and I think it’s easy to tell when something is trying to make sense and doesn’t. That’s the difference between Cats and something like The Rise of Skywalker. Cats is basically pure chaos whereas TROS is chaotic in that it doesn’t follow its own internal logical sense. We can in that instance critique it because it’s breaking its own rules. Cats doesn’t have those same rules.

So, how do we watch a movie without a logical sense? You have to let it happen to you. Take in its impressions, its aesthetic, its characters, sights, and sounds. It’s an experience a lot of people have a hard time appreciating because at the end of the day, we want to connect with something emotionally, and a lot of people need something logical to hold onto to make sense of their emotions instead of letting them rise naturally from an aesthetic experience. A film can have an emotional sense without a logical one, and this is empathy, and empathy never truly makes sense.

Whether or not you were able to feel something watching Cats is an entirely different question, but despite everything working against this movie (and there was a lot), I still got chills when Grizabella sang “Memories.” I was still rooting for Mr. Mistoffelees when he kept trying to get Old Deuteronomy back. I still desperately wanted Victoria to find a family. I realize how incredibly absurd all of those feelings were, but the absurdity of the entire experience of this movie is exactly why I had so much fun watching it, not only in an empathetic sense but in the sense that the entire premise of this movie existing is absolutely bonkers.

Do I think Cats is a good movie? Not really. Did I have a good time watching it? 100%. Because something doesn’t have to make logical sense to be entertaining, and I think I’m just as entertained and affected by nonsensical aesthetic experiences as I am movies with strong narratives. After all, since when is logic considered a criterion for entertainment, and since when are emotions logical?

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.