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O Magazine
2015-2017

THE

SECRET

OF CATS

IN FILM


OR FROM EXPERIMENTAL KITTEN FILMS

BY EULÀLIA IGLESIAS

The secret life of cats in film or from experimental kitten films – O Productora Audiovisual

Before they became the kings of YouTube and the Internet ended up filled up with GIFs, Vines and videos of cats challenging gravity, without knowing it, playing the keyboards, sleeping in impossible postures, marking their territory before a dog, escaping naughty children who end up tasting their own medicine, accumulating capital or being afraid of cucumbers, these animals had already starred in many home films made by renowned but obscure filmmakers. Here you have some notes towards a definitive anthology of non-fictional and experimental feline films.

Sorry, YouTube! Although the amount of cat videos that spread like wildfire in the platform, often grouped in theme compilations (YouTuber feline sub-genres include from cats-slipping-on-parquet-floors to cats-fitting-in-the-smallest-recipients, including classics such as cats-chasing-their-own-tails or cat-literal-epic-fails), is innumerable, the best cat home video dates back from the forties of the 20th century. The Private Life of a Cat, by Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren, represents a landmark because it was the first time in which some filmmakers turned their cats into the main protagonists of a film. All throughout its half an hour, The Private Life of a Cat becomes an exemplary mockumentary, a lesson in cinematic narrative from the construction of a story with a non-human protagonist. Placing the camera at their kitten height, Hammid and Deren weave a classic story but from the point of view of the animal. With a foreword presenting the two protagonists which justifies the subsequent pregnancy of the she-cat until the process following the preparations to give birth, including continuities of looks between the two cats and intertitles which punctuate the diachronic nature of the story up to the standardised happy ending, The Private Life of a Cat is the story of a domestic cat idealised through film.

Although it moves away from the usual absence of narrative characteristic of most online cat videos, Hammid and Deren do anticipate, through the anthropomorphism of the life of their cats, the interest that will soon appear in experimental film to turn the filmmaker’s own private sphere (from the most trivial instants of inactivity to moments as vital and intimate as birth-giving) into the centre of the film. And with close-ups as beautiful as those showing the tummy of the cat with swollen nipples, they advance future questionings about how to shoot a body from documentary intimacy.

Although Andy Warhol devoted a series of lithographs to cats in his pre-pop art period, these animals rarely appeared in any of his films. Except for Eat, in which the only distraction during the three quarters of an hour in which we contemplate Robert Indiana eating a mushroom is the long cameo of the author of LOVE‘s cat. Without ceasing to chew, Indiana holds his pet with pride in front of the camera as if it were a kind of feline screen test… From the pioneer film by Deren and Hammid to pieces such as those by Guy Sherman, cats have been more than just a whimsical presence in experimental films, and we could discuss up to what point they might have contributed to articulating the characteristics of this non-fictional genre. 

In De Poes, Johan van der Keuken turned his cat into the vehicle to subvert from experimental film the precepts of conventional film. As he himself explained, the movie responds to an invitation that he and other directors received to create a feature film in which each piece would take on from where the last scene of the previous film had left. Van der Keuken had to start with a typical thriller image (a shooting gun…), but instead of following this generic path, he defended, through his pet and also a voice-over, a kind of film that breaks with the expectations of the audience.

Chris Marker, feline director par excellence, articulated as no other the idea of the cat as the alter ego of the experimental director, muse and partner in crime of his creative process and a recurrent figure of his whole cinematography. Guillaume-en-Egypte is a continuous presence in the work of the French filmmaker, but we choose above all the haiku he devoted to him in his O Bestiario, Chat écoutant la musique, in which we see Guillaume in an apparently inactive sort of action: listening to Frederic Mompou, one of his favourite musicians. Agnès Varda turned Guillaume into the spokesperson of an always-elusive Marker when she visited the director of La Jetée‘s studio for Agnès de ci de là Varda. She also confessed her adoration for cats through her own films. And amongst the extra contents of Les glaneurs et la glaneuse we can find her Hommage a Zgougou, a homage to her most beloved pet.

In 1959, Stan Brakhage shot another pioneer work, Cat’s Cradle, a piece of feverish sensuality showing the intimate circle of two couples, one made up of himself and his then wife Jane, and another of Carolee Schneemann and musician James Tenney, with the cat of the artist Fluxus, Kitch, as mediator and witness. Carolee never felt completely at ease with the role that Brakhage made her play in the film, and that’s why she turned her work Fuses, where she appears making love with James, into a sort of dialectic piece to that of Brakhage, readdressing the representation he made of a woman’s body and sexuality, and with the same feline protagonist as witness. Kitch, in fact, is a recurrent figure in Schneemann’s films, the point of view contemplating from an intimate impassivity (the cat-on-the-house perspective as a closer and more self-conscious version of the fly-on-the-wall) the everyday life of the woman and her partner, here and in other titles such as Kitch’s Last Meal.

Although, in fact, Infinity Kisses – The Movie is her most experimental film with cats. If The Private Life of a Cat is porno-cute, extreme hardcore level, at the other end we find this perfect example of the subversive intentions of an artist that did performances with raw meat or who read manuscripts unfolded from inside her own vagina. Inifinty Kisses – The Movie transgresses the limits of tenderness that cat videos are supposed to include in order to explore more uncomfortable territories. The video is an almost infinite succession of photographs of Schneemann kissing her animals. The proximity of the camera, the artist’s attitude, the brutish aesthetics and the divided screen placing each image besides a blowing up of a detail of the same image (in the way of porno’s genital close-ups), produce a repulsive effect by suggesting an eroticization of the bond between the artist and her cats, a visual rendering of the subversive nature behind the concept “mad about cats.”