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.