The James Clayton Column: Can the Coens make me love cats?

Inside Llewyn Davis leaves James pondering the role of cats in films, and whether the Coens can make him learn to love the furry moggies...

Llewyn Davis is a New York musician pawing around the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene. He’s a pretentious mewling creative-type who can’t connect with others around him, and he’s caught up in the questions of artistic integrity versus commercial success. He’s a lost soul with some hair going on. Llewyn Davis has a lot in common with a certain Barton Fink, and in my mind I can picture the forlorn pair performing “Man of Constant Sorrow” as a duet.

In spite of their similarities, though, the lead of the Coen Brothers’ fresh folk yarn is arguably better off than John Turturro’s doomed screenwriter. Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) has something that Fink lacks and that is a pet. Said pet is a cat and said cat’s name is Ulysses.

It’s common knowledge that a little pussy makes everything better. Davis may be a struggling hobo confronting the harsh New York winter and artistic anguish but, hey, simply having a fluffy kitty companion is comfort, right? Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that feline friends are much consolation at all.

For a start, I’m not looking for something cutesy and soothing in a Coen & Coen film because I love the Brothers Grim most when they get blackly tragicomic and brutally bleak. I bask in the painful misery of Barton Fink, the cringeworthy frustrations of Fargo and the seriously serious anguish of A Serious Man. I’m looking forward to Inside Llewyn Davis as a feature-length trawl through soul-shredding torment offset by a nice folk soundtrack. Oh, and Justin Timberlake with a beard and a sweater. Misery loves knitwear and facial hair and J.T. is bringing itchy back. 

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Still, I know that others want touches of lightness and some reprieve from this world of suffering when they trip off to the cinema. Enter Ulysses – a reference to the Greek myth adapted by the Coens as O Brother, Where Art Thou? – as an appealing diversion from dreadfulness. The ginger tomcat (played by ‘Tigger’, ‘Daryl’ and ‘Jerry’) has received rave reviews from critics and went down a storm when he surfaced at the Cannes Film Festival. The bewhiskered breakout star of Inside Llewyn Davis is an instant crowd-pleaser whom audiences can adore. A lot of people really like cats. 

This is where I find myself slightly out of step with popular pet opinion. I’m not overly enamoured by kitties. I don’t dislike them or have any malicious anti-feline agenda – I just don’t care much about them and am pretty indifferent when it comes to domesticated creatures that say things like “meow”.

Cats are definitely lower down the league tables if I had to rank them against other animals. I go ape for monkeys. I go hog wild for pigs. I bug out for creepy crawly insects. I also love spiders but they haven’t inspired an idiom to indicate tremendous enthusiasm. Ah, by the eyes of Shelob, I love arachnids so much I’m going to spawn one of my own. I eightleggedfreak-out for spiders. Yes, I’m happy with that and so are the cute little critters clinging on to the cobwebs in my mind (where they’re watching Barton Fink and Llewyn Davis singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” and simultaneously weaving Justin Timberlake a new silk tie to match his pullover).

Back to cats, and unlike the aforementioned species I’m not moved to exclamations of “wow!”, “aww!” or “Aren’t they just amazing!” whenever I behold a feline entity. It’s probably because cats are commonplace and, domesticated as they are, lack that extreme, exotic excitement that characterises other animals. Moggies are mundane and only become edgy if they somehow come to be associated with a practitioner of black magick.

I like my animals wild. Monstrous physical attributes, special primal skillsets and lethal potential are what I’m looking for when I seek to befriend non-humans. I identify more with Grizzly Man than Catwoman because being savaged by a bear strikes me as a more fun way to live (erm, die) than scratching out a spinster existence surrounded by tame creatures that could only kill you by licking you to death. (It’s worth remembering that in Batman Returns stray cats licked Selina Kyle into a whole new psychotic alter-ego state and that’s actually quite impressive. Still, they were outshone by Oswald Cobblepot’s penguin army, which I reckon says it all about the limited power of the modern urban feline.)

As I say, I don’t hate them and don’t want to wish them any ill will. I’ve met some really nice cats and enjoyed stroking them while looking into their beady eyes to gauge if the secret wisdom of Ancient Egypt is hidden in what, for all I know, could be a fresh manifestation of the goddess Bast. (Thus far, I haven’t found any ancient Egyptian deities in animal form or received anything in the way of arcane spiritual guidance from a friend’s pet.) 

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Contemplating my attitude towards cats, what I’ve realised is that my outlook has been heavily affected by the internet – another means by which the cruel human race can pervert, corrupt and spoil nature for its own twisted self-satisfaction. The world wide web (or rather, some of the strange and sinister people who use it) has advanced the depressing regressive evolution of cats from wild animals to domestic ornaments to exploited cyber-sideshow attractions.

I pass by all these Lolcats and the widely-shared images and videos of kitties doing ‘adorable’ things and feel really sad. They don’t make much sense to me. There are more stimulating ways to procrastinate. There are more stimulating things that you can do with cats and for cats. Has anyone ever actually asked the cats as a collective species how they feel about all these Instagram photos, unfunny memes and viral video hits? Are they aware that their image is being commodified and manipulated by idiotic attention-seeking humans for their own personal gain?

In conclusion, I can clearly see that human beings are turning me against cats. I’ve got myself caught up in a cat’s cradle trap – a frustrating and confounding manmade construction in which there is no actual true real life cat. Nevertheless, there’s hope because I believe that art can reignite lost affections and misplaced compassionate feeling. I know that movies have persuasive power and this is where Inside Llewyn Davis stalks in as a folk remedy, Ulysses presenting paws for thought and entering my life to begin a beautiful friendship.

As I look forward to Inside Llewyn Davis I also thought it might be worthwhile looking back through film history to seek out other great screen felines that might inspire a change of mind. (Yes, I’m going to eschew insightful, intellectual discussion on important topics and instead look at cats. This is, apparently, what the internet is for.)

“Could it be that by concentrating your energies on a movie memory exercise and meditating on all the ace animals you rediscover you will achieve a change of heart and consciousness?” I asked myself. “Yes,” I answered myself, but this quest is confused by an iffy memory that doesn’t appear to record or note cat appearances. As I said, they’re commonplace features and there no pussycat-packed equivalent of the Internet Movie Firearms Database either. Gun fetishists have all their needs covered but myself and curious cat-crazy movie buffs are left hanging without the help of a handy (pawsy?) wiki site.

I clawed on through the soiled litterbox of my memory regardless, immediately discouraged by the fact that the first film I thought of was Jacques Tourneur’s horror classic Cat People. That’s about metamorphosis into a black panther and panthers are predatorial big cats so Cat People – and other flicks starring panthers, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, ThunderCats and werecats – don’t count on the great pet cat playlist. While I’m at it, neither does Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

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It doesn’t necessarily follow that little kitties can’t be deadly though. My favourite movie cat is probably a chopsocky moggy named Pattern Face who stars in Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow. He ravages a martial arts manual and then uses his ingested knowledge to beat a cobra in a fight to the death. Jackie Chan observes his kitty’s victory, learns from it and realises that by combining Cat Claw with his Snake Fist he can overcome the Eagle’s Claw style of his nefarious enemies.

From my perspective, cult Asian cinema does indeed appear to have the heppest hero hep cats. Studio Ghibli have given the world fantastical feline creations such as Baron Humbert Von Gikkingen (Whisper Of The Heart and The Cat Returns), Jiji (Kiki’s Delivery Service) and, greatest of all, Catbus (My Neighbour Totoro).

As far as my memory goes, Japan is also responsible for the most imaginative and exciting cat horror action moments thanks to House and Kuroneko. Moving to English-language cinema, Jonesy of Alien series is the undisputed king kitty of both the sci-fi and horror genres. I’m also a fan of the Cheshire Cat of Disney’s animated Alice In Wonderland and the iconic white crime boss pussies stroked by Blofeld in the Bond films and Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

All the rest – The Aristocats, Hermione’s Crookshanks, Mr Jinx of Meet The Parents, Snowbell of Stuart Little, Top Cat, Puss in Boots and so on – are a collective shrug. I don’t really care about them and they don’t fill me up with feline fondness. I’ve probably forgotten a lot of kitties so, please, feel free to point out cat-astrophic oversights in the comments section below.

In the meantime, I’ll be brooding with Inside Llewyn Davis and, ideally, finding fuzzy warmth and a fresh appreciation for cat-kind with Ulysses. I’m a man of constant sorrow jonesing for a Coen Brothers fix and a new feline friend. Inside Llewyn Davis is the purr-fect film for me right now.

James Clayton is grinning like a Cheshire Cat because he gets to watch a Coen Brothers movie this weekend. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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