Bad Movies, Long Tails

On the first Cats-iversary of Tom Hooper’s ignominious movie mewsical, Hannah Woodhead celebrates the inglorious cinema spectacles that have helped us through this horrendous year.

A year ago, the most important thing on my mind was Digital Fur Technology. We’d all seen the trailers, the behind-the-scenes footage, the memes—but somehow none of that was enough to prepare us for the actuality of Tom Hooper’s Cats, the mystifying marvel that many people couldn’t believe was real until they actually sat down in the cinema—the cinema!—and witnessed it.

I fondly recall attending the London press screening with a colleague, who had never seen Cats: The Musical; I, meanwhile, was bewitched by the likes of The Magical Mr. Mistoffelees and Macavity the Mystery Cat as a small child, when it was the first trip to the theater I ever took. My colleague became increasingly concerned as I proceeded to audibly lose my mind in the seat next to him, baffled by both the on-screen cavorting and why exactly I was having such a visceral response to it.

The film’s tagline was ‘You will believe’, but many of us just couldn’t. The reviews came in thick and fast: “One of those once-in-a-blue-moon embarrassments that mars the résumés of great actors,” said Variety. “With its grotesque design choices and busy, metronomic editing, Cats is as uneasy on the eyes as a Hollywood spectacle can be, tumbling into an uncanny valley between mangy realism and dystopian artifice,” concluded The Los Angeles Times.

James Corden and Rebel Wilson might have tried to convince us they were in on the joke with their 2020 Oscars skit, but the box office numbers (and Razzie nominations) don’t lie. Critics and audiences alike were confused, bored, horrified, or—perhaps most damning of all—indifferent to what was once garlanded as the cinema event of the festive season. I suppose it was, in the same way getting drunk at your office party and throwing up in the street crying into your chips is a festive event.

But here we are, some 200-or-something months later, living in a post-Cats world, and I’m thinking once more of Tom Hooper’s magnum opus, and the perverse pleasures of films that we know are of little to no artistic merit, and merrily watch all the same. Despite giving the film a rather harsh review back then, I can’t truly dislike it. Does the thought of so much money being spunked away on such a futile and stupid gesture sit uneasy with me? Plus ça change for Hollywood. But the knowledge that Cats had so much work put into it and yet came out so truly nightmarish and overwrought is inherently quite funny. And gosh, it feels good to laugh in a year that hasn’t provided much cause to.

As it turns out, Cats has a rather long tail. When Ella Kemp recently looked into the highest-rated, most obsessively rewatched films from the Letterboxd community, one outlier kept sticking its ears up—yes, Cats. It is officially the lowest-rated, most obsessively rewatched film on Letterboxd in 2020, and more than that, it received the largest ratings bump from its obsessive rewatchers of any ‘bad’ film. While the average Letterboxd rating for Cats is one and a half stars out of five, its average among obsessive members who watch it again and again is a much higher 3.7.

I must salute the efforts of Letterboxd members James, Joseph and Ray—the most obsessive Cats rewatchers of all—who have seen the film a combined 94 times. Every four days or so for the past year, one of them has sat down to watch Idris Elba cavorting around like the Nightman from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They’re not alone, and this is Cats’ great achievement: even while it was still in cinemas it was attracting the irony-loving repeat audiences, such as Alamo Dratfhouse’s Rowdy Screenings in the United States.

The best cat: Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees.
The best cat: Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees.

There’s communal value in ‘so bad it’s good’, as the against-all-odds success of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has proven for years (“The Room is not a comedy of errors; it is almost purely errors,” The Cut’s Adam Novak once wrote). During the pandemic, we’ve turned to television and films for comfort, and nothing is more comforting than the familiar, the funny and the fantastic failures.

Last month, The New York Times reported on the attraction to nostalgia during stressful periods, and arguably, nothing has been collectively more stressful in recent times than living through a global pandemic. In that article, Dr. Wing Yee Cheung, who studies nostalgia, explained why, in uncertain times, we might be attracted to the things we enjoyed when we were younger: “We feel that we have lost footing at the present time, and we gain some comfort by taking a step back and revisiting something that reminds us of a time that we used to feel more connected with other people.” So there’s a scientific reason we’ve all been rewatching The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: we’re trying to draw strength from our past experiences.

But what’s the science behind our being repeatedly drawn to the dregs of cinema? To the cinematic equivalents of a Big Mac and large Coke, that we consume not because they are fundamentally nutritional, but because they nourish us in a different way? First off, defining ‘bad’ in the context of movies means appreciating that there are all kinds of bad, including incompetent-bad (they didn’t know what they were doing!), camp-bad (Sexy! Goofy! Fun!), camp’s exploitative, self-aware cousin, trash-bad (a beloved genre of mine), and misunderstood-bad. The reasons certain films get written off as bad upon release are myriad and often structural. For every The Room there’s a Jennifer’s Body, which started life on Letterboxd as a 2.3 stinker but has climbed in the intervening decade to a 3.2 average (and is still rising, the Letterboxd statisticians tell me).

Megan Fox as the eponymous Jennifer, in Jennifer’s Body (2009).
Megan Fox as the eponymous Jennifer, in Jennifer’s Body (2009).

Culture writer Phil Christman, in The Hedgehog Review, writes about his attraction to the incompetent-bad category. “We bad-movie watchers have our own anti-criteria, the sorts of badness we prefer,” he explains, in passionate defense of quote-unquote Bad Movies, beginning with the genre’s Citizen Kane: Plan 9 from Outer Space. “The particular kind of badness I like is the film that is childish or incompetent—what it does, it does inadvertently.” Meanwhile, the great Michael Musto is a camp-bad fan, writing that the appeal for his long-running good/bad movie club is in the combination of snark, fallen-star-power and escapism. (The bizarre 1973 musical Lost Horizon is a favorite in his club.)

Cats, without doubt, is the ultimate kind of bad: a spectacular misfire that carries a blind, unwarranted self-confidence. This Cats review from Ethan Colburn might sum up my feelings on the subject best:

“If you are someone who hasn’t seen this movie because of how horrible the reviews are, I beg you to reconsider. This might be the most unique experience you can have with any film. I can’t describe the feeling of disgust and wonder that this film provides. It is so jarring, you are immediately taken out of your world and shot into a brand new nightmare that you never could have imagined yourself. Then you realize your life isn’t so bad.”

I think, then, we could name Tom Hooper’s bad a kind of schadenfreude-bad. Hooper is a filmmaker with 24 Oscar nominations to his name. His 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables made more than $440 million at the worldwide box office. The cast of Cats includes knights, dames, Oscar winners, musical theater’s finest and Taylor Swift. How could so much talent (and a $95 million budget) amount to so little? Jesse Hassenger sums up the film’s sick appeal:

“All are equal here. Judi Dench is no better at acting than Taylor Swift. Jennifer Hudson is no more effective at singing than Rebel Wilson. Ian McKellen has no more dignity than Jason Derulo. For possibly the first time in cinematic history, James Corden is no more of a nuisance than anyone else on screen. All brought to the same level. All Cats.”

There are plenty more inadvertently ‘bad’ films that are well loved by this community. Cats aside, Letterboxd’s 2020 data shows high numbers of rewatches of low-rating blockbusters Batman v Superman, Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Trolls World Tour and Sonic the Hedgehog. And when we asked on Twitter what other low-rated cinema gems were lapped up this year, the responses included Unhinged, the Paul Blart films, Grease 2, Highlander 2, Ghost Rider 2, the worst Cars and the Friday the 13th where Jason takes Manhattan.

The 2003 not-starring-Brendan-Fraser George of the Jungle sequel.
The 2003 not-starring-Brendan-Fraser George of the Jungle sequel.

Going further back, in a delightful bit of hive-mind research, Jack Moulton asked members to submit their genuine, all-time favorite movies, for his ‘It’s Someone’s Favorite Movie’ list. Sorting the list by lowest-rated reveals that George of the Jungle 2, Lady in the Water and Freddy Got Fingered all have their ardent defenders.

These Letterboxd members will find no judgment from me. More than a few of my own personal favorites (Southland Tales, The Bling Ring, Showgirls) also make the lower ranks of the list. I’m entirely willing to not only accept but embrace the fact that I sometimes have terrible taste. Earlier this year I had a week where I just watched the Jackass movies back to back, three times in a row. I will defend Johnny Knoxville with my dying breath. I have seen every Adam Sandler film multiple times and enjoyed most of them, including Jack and Jill. I believe more of us should embrace our duality: we can love the good, the bad and the ugly with impunity.

This is something Catherine Bray explores in ‘Guilty Pleasures’, her essay film analyzing the rom-coms, action flicks, schlocky horrors and everything in between, that attract ‘so bad it’s good’ labelling. She points towards a more useful concept of ‘guilty pleasure’—one that absolves cheap production values and studio misfires in favor of critical thinking. Since filmmakers continue to fly like Icarus toward the sun, with often horrifying results, it’s worth turning the ol’ brain cogs in a different direction. Rather than punching down, it’s about conscious viewing: thinking about the context and content of what we’re watching; acknowledging, and engaging with, the film’s circumstances, as much as the film itself.

Speaking of circumstances: if Cats did one (more) thing wrong, it was to come out a year too early. We had that brief, collective moment of confused caterwauling inside actual cinemas last winter, but just imagine the horrified glee of a locked-down globe if it was released directly into households now. Worldwide watch party, anyone? No? Just me and my cat, then. Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, Letterboxd family, and kick back with a film you love, the worse the better.

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