This Is the Best Experimental Film About Cats Ever Made

Perhaps a nearly forgotten product of New York's avant garde art scene can show new directions for cat videos.

More

During the mid 1940s, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid made films together as a husband-and-wife team. Who did what and who deserves the credit for directing or shooting their films remains disputed scholarly territory, but suffice to say, they were great together. The first film they created was the 1943 short epic, Meshes in the Afternoon, which attempted to capture the movements of the subconscious in its repetitions and startling shifts in perspective and scene. It's gone on to become one of the most recognized and cited American experimental movies of the period. After hanging around the New York arts scene with people like John Cage and Anais Nin In 1947, Hammid and Deren joined together for another artful production, the last before they split.

They made a film about cats. And it is so, so good.

This is not a joke. The film they produced, The Private Life of a Cat, is dramatic and intense. It begins with the introduction of the two main characters: the male and female cats that lived at Deren and Hammid's apartment. After some head licking by the cats, we are told that the female cat is pregnant and we see her jumping into a box where she remains for a good portion of the rest of the film.

It's here where the film really gets good, and not just for crazy cat ladies like me. We see the mother cat give birth on camera. The filmmaking is top-rate. The shots are held just long enough. One slimy little kitten after the other emerges and the mother licks them into activity. The mother pants. And five kittens have been born.

In a remarkable sequence, the father of the kittens peeks under the doorway into the birthing room. The mother spies him and he eventually pushes the door open and enters the room. He tentatively looks at his children. He bats playfully at their mother. He climbs into the box and she kisses his head.

The film continues but I'll stop summarizing there. This film succeeds in the exact opposite way that most cat videos do. Gideon Lewis-Kraus came to this conclusion in Wired's deep investigations of cat videos' appeal: "It’s not just that cats are unable to be anything but real; it’s that cats both know they are performing and couldn’t possibly care less about how their performance is received," he wrote.

But the cats in this film are not performing. They are actually experiencing pain and fear and whatever satisfaction comes with continuing the species, with evolutionary success. Maru is like a videogame character. He cannot be injured no matter how big or how small the box into which he's jumping. The cats in this film are regular old organisms. They have children and they will die.

The plots the cats engage in seem so much like our own, but require no words. They are silent, mammalian allegories about learning and maybe even parenting. In one of the best scenes, the father cat easily scales a climbing post and sits atop it. One of his kittens sees him up and there and tries to reach his father's heights. The whole scene has the dramatic pacing — shot of kitten climbing, countershot of father, shot of kitten climbing, etc — of an action movie. And when the little fluffy white kitten reaches the top of the climbing post, it is a triumphant moment. Until the mother, who has been watching, pulls the kitten down to the ground with her jaws. We see the father lying down, tail swishing with self-satisfaction.

What was most exciting about Deren and Hammid's non-feline work was the kinds of possibilities it opened up in cinema. Deren, in particular, did not want film to merely represent the world but to create new realities that were only possible in film. "The form proper of film is, for me," Deren wrote, "accomplished only when the elements, whatever their original context, are related according to the special character of the instrument of film itself — the camera and the editing — so that the reality which emerges is a new one—one which only film can achieve."

I suggest this only half-seriously, but I wonder what better, more interesting realities could be depicted through the genre of the cat video. For so long, we've seen the same sorts of easy cat videos, even the very best, the ones that win the cat video prizes. Maybe it's time for some hard cat films that revive the tradition of The Private Life of a Cat.

Jump to comments

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Video

Just In