Friday, August 19, 2011

Cat People

I recently saw the 1942 horror classic, Cat People, expecting it to be laughable in a campy way but instead was impressed by its acting and style. It is full of shadows and the moody atmosphere that only a black-and-white movie can suggest as it works on the imagination with its understated tensions and fears.

The story, based on producer Val Lewton's story, stemmed from his fear of cats (and perhaps of females who prey on men). As much as I admired the skill of this low-budget production, I could not help think that it is part of that unfortunate chapter of anti-feline history, in which cats (black, preferably) are associated with witches and evil and are blamed for the evil that men do. They are typically associated, at least in the West, with the feminine.

The ambivalent appeal of the cat is something that intrigued me in the research I did for a little book, published in 2003: Writing with Cats,
a mostly whimsical look at the influence of cats on writers, suggesting that cats may be the secret source of inspiration writers need. Why else did Hemingway, Mark Twain, Colette and countless other authors praise cats and want to be surrounded by them?

For all the praise heaped on these sensitive little creatures, for all the attention we lavish on our house cats, there remains a minority of the population that hates cats, a hatred often born of fear. What is it that people fear about the feline?

For many men (Napoleon, e.g.), I suspect it is the inability to control these highly independent animals; for others, it is their unpredictability, or their often mysterious, penetrating gazes, or their odd, wild behavior, as when our cat will suddenly race down the hall as if the demons of hell are attacking her. I can see why people in the past would sometimes think cats were possessed and treat them in terrible ways.

This dark history came as a revelation to me after observing our first and only cat, Lizzie, and discovering how sensitive, gentle, intelligent, highly affectionate and playful a feline can be. This was the basis of my conclusion that cats, as quiet, contemplative creatures, make ideal companions for writers since they set a mood of reflection and interiority that writers need. Those who bought and praised my book were true cat people--great cat fanciers--and I was invited to join the Cat Writers' Association, which promises to fight any defamation of the cat in print.

So in watching the movie Cat People I faced yet again the other side of feline history, the side I had ignored in my book, involving the cat's power to frighten people. What's intriguing is the ambiguity of cats: mysterious yet lovable, cunning at times while also charming and usually hilarious. And of course, we are intrigued by the more interesting ambiguity of human behavior, motivated by irrational fears of the unknown, torn by sexual tensions that we are often unconscious of. Beyond this is the mystery of evil, which can be alluring as well as alarming, more interesting to explore than the good (as the great writers have consistently shown).

What better material to build a story around, as Val Lewton saw: the cute pussycat can also be the nocturnal, sneaky, half-wild, potentially dangerous symbol of the female as she confronts the male. No wonder many men have hated (i.e., feared) cats with the type of hatred that can lead to violence.

Of course, if you are, like me, a cat person in the usual sense who simply wants to enjoy a classic movie like Cat People, don't let my commentary deter you. Enjoy!

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