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Lil Bub is just one of the felines featured in the Just for Cats series at TIFF Bell Lightbox. (Paul Schmelzer)
Lil Bub is just one of the felines featured in the Just for Cats series at TIFF Bell Lightbox. (Paul Schmelzer)

Ready for their claws-up: Why cats are becoming art-world darlings Add to ...

Dogs may be the public face of the pet world, but cats have proved to be the real stars.

The Internet has brought these once-aloof creatures out of the shadows and helped them shed an image problem dating back to the days of witches and broomsticks. As the acknowledged rulers of YouTube and the perpetrators of e-mail chains that draw millions of views to their online antics, cats have turned into pop-culture darlings – creating celebrities out of such camera-friendly felines as the permafrowned Grumpy Cat; wide-eyed Lil Bub; brooding Henri, le Chat Noir; and the compulsive box lover, Maru.

Much of the cat’s unexpected ascendancy has been happening quietly, in the privacy of the cubicle and the solitude of the computer screen. But now the cat-video phenomenon has found a bigger stage: a festival format where curated videos play to huge crowds of adoring fans, and the “Is it art?” questions are reaching new levels of confusion and semi-urgency.

On Thursday night, under the patronage of Laureen Harper, wife of the Prime Minister and a committed cat foster mom, the Toronto International Film Festival hosted Just for Cats – two sold-out showings of a best-of compilation reel put together by the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis that features such videos as Oskar the Blind Kitten vs. Hair Dryer, Smart Cat Knocks on the Door, Parrot Relentlessly Annoying Cat and Henri 2, Paw de Deux. The Toronto event marks the beginning of an 11-city cross-country tour that will wind up in August with a massive tribute in Vancouver.

“The cat has no intention of being amazing onscreen,” says TIFF programmer Magali Simard, a self-described cat lady. “And yet the fact that this content becomes the most-viewed material online is a humbling message to people who create art very consciously – it’s a little bit of a middle finger to established art.”

In a departure from the usual cinephile fare at TIFF (such as the just-concluded retrospective Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination), Just for Cats features a red-carpet adoptathon in the theatre atrium and the opportunity for audience members to have their pictures taken with cat cutouts under the sponsorship of the Temptations brand of kitty treats. Proceeds from the event will go to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS), which hopes the festival can win more love for an animal that, despite its Internet popularity, is still undervalued in the real world. Less than 0.5 per cent of cats that find their way to shelters are ever reunited with their owners, and many are euthanized.

The CFHS had been looking for ways to focus more attention on the normally Garboesque animal when the Walker Center compilation became an instant hit – drawing 10,000 fans to an outdoor screening in 2012, and pulling in Canadian fans to a showing in Montreal last fall. The Internet’s affirmation of the cat’s most attractive qualities, says society CEO Barbara Cartwright, provides an opportunity to broaden the base of cat owners and to prove in a joyful social setting that a devotion to cats isn’t proof of craziness.

“Up until very recently, if you weren’t a cat person, you didn’t know how fascinating the cat brain could be,” says Cartwright. “But when you get sent a cat video by your friends, you see what compelling creatures they are. They’re unpredictable and unremorseful; they’re playful, and they’re attempting crazy things that we as humans never think of attempting. Cats are unfettered, unedited and not predetermined, unlike so much of what we now consume in the media.”

Modern technology, through the proliferation of smartphone and tablet videos, has enabled cats to express these qualities much more successfully. “These are videos shot in people’s kitchens and living rooms, which is exactly where you catch a cat behaving like a cat,” says David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. “They’re intimate and domestic, and give owners a chance to say that cats are cute, cats are loveable, cats do silly and funny things.”

YouTube’s LOLing felines may be the ultimate reality stars of modern culture, capitalizing on a gift for spontaneity to lure in viewers weary of Hollywood’s dog-like attempts to please. And yet in many ways, cat videos replicate the innocent unexpectedness of the first silent movies, and allow a viewer to feel like a newcomer to the wonders of motion pictures. The playful pair of prancing cats in Dansons la capucine almost feel like an homage to Thomas Edison’s pioneering film from 1894, an exhibition of feline pugilism titled The Boxing Cats. As nature’s born actors, blessed with enigmatic faces that give away nothing and say everything, cats have infinite cinematic range: slapstick, action, deep introspection, lofty disdain, childlike excitement, and an atavistic urge to jump in boxes.

“Cat videos have become a kind of wildlife preserve for the cinema of the real,” says James Cahill, who teaches a course in Animals and Cinema at the University of Toronto. “They provide us with a lot of what contemporary spectacle moviemaking doesn’t give us: moments of a pure, unadulterated, and almost indifferent unfolding of events.”

Cats are indeed the masters of indifference, as cat-video director Will Braden can attest. The Seattle-based Braden won the Walker Center’s Golden Kitty Award for his subtitled Henri 2, Paw de Deux, a black-and-white French film of studied artiness that features a black-and-white cat prone to ruminate with Camus-like ennui. (“We cannot escape ourselves; and sometimes the cat door … is closed.”)

His fluffy furball star may be celebrated for the existentialist depth of his portrayal, and yet Braden has learned to accept that cat actors, for all their spontaneity, cannot be directed and manipulated as easily as humans: Anyone who works in the cat-video field has to park some of their auteur instincts at the door.

“As a director, you lose the ability to fix things,” Braden says. “So much of the technical aspect of shooting is just logistics: ‘We need to fix this light. Can you take a step forward? Do that again more slowly.’ But cats either don’t understand English or pretend they don’t understand English, so you can’t do any of that stuff. Your role as director becomes more passive – you have to wait for things to happen rather than controlling them.”

Which is exactly what makes this unherdable animal the source of cinematic celebrity and the object of human love: an above-it-all elusiveness that is the mark of the true star.

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