Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review of Incredible Cat Tricks

With its professional camera use, multiple takes to optimize performances and inclusion of sets, “Air Bud” (1997) was every inch the Hollywood blockbuster. It turned Buddy, a talented sporty Golden Retriever, into an international celebrity and launched a series of spinoffs that capitalized on (some would say exploited) his success. It was a triumph of advertising and passable technical competence that will remain a marginal part of America’s long and prestigious tradition of gimmickry.

But the same year that “Air Bud’s” became a slam dunk success, a scrappy independent animal flick was struggling for survival. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that “Incredible Cat Tricks” is the superior film, a showcase of staggering brilliance that has been labeled by some critics as the Citizen Kane of cat trick movies.

“Incredible Cat Tricks” (1997) stars Princess Kitty, known the world over as “the world’s smartest cat” (actual ranking unknown given the variability in standardized testing) in her film debut. Often dismissed as merely well-groomed, Princess Kitty gives the performance of a lifetime as herself, a pampered grouchy cat forced to do degrading parlor tricks by a megalomaniac owner (Karen Payne, also playing herself) with too much time on her hands.

The subtlety of Princess Kitty’s role is admirable, presenting the hard-bitten world-weary lethargy of a cynical showcat sick of the spotlight’s soulless warmth and desperate to curl up in the shadows of a broken career. Her frustrated growls and attempts to bite her owner reveal the fissures in a fraught relationship with a naturalism that borders on complete inattention. Meanwhile, Payne is spot on as the slightly insane, totally clueless self-promoter who lapses into eccentric monologues about her pet’s past incarnations as an Egyptian empress.

The comparisons to Citizen Kane are particularly apropos, given its structure as a biographical roman à clef centered on the cat trick industry titan, Princess Kitty, and told through a complicated web of interviews and flashbacks that operate without ever really accessing the subject herself. Instead, her tale is told through a humane society worker, a Telemundo gameshow host and the woman who knew her best, but who ultimately never really knew her at all: Karen Payne. Their testimony builds a patchwork of personality, a network of contradictions that denies the easy answers and slick simplicity of “Air Bud.”

While critics might have accepted a tragicomic anti-heroic feline biopic, they weren’t in the least prepared to respond to the bold technical experiments that place “Incredible Cat Tricks” at the frontlines of the avant-garde. The free-style, nearly satiric appropriation of neorealist and dogme 95 methodology to give the film a look of unrehearsed immediacy is both refreshing and shockingly against the grain of Hollywood wisdom. “Incredible Cat Tricks” doesn’t just shun the obsessive drive for perfectionism that shooting multiple takes entails; it embraces mistakes as happy accidents. The director goes even further towards naked honesty, exposing the very artifice of the medium by dipping the mic boom into the frame.

Partial blame for the relatively obscurity and general critical dismissal of “Incredible Cat Tricks” is the fault of a mismanaged distribution and marketing campaign. Only available for $25 on VHS from http://www.princesskitty.com/ (the Film Walrus found a copy gathering dust at his local library) the box art promises 60 minutes of amazing cat tricks. It’s a promise the film just can’t keep, and perhaps no 52 minute movie could.

Still, after the half an hour of Princess Kitty biography and promotional material, the 20 minute cat trick performance sequence is a marvel of minimalist virtuosity that more than makes up for the blatant misadvertising. Shot with a straight-on monotone framing against a featureless blue background, the trick sequence forces our attention to focus only on Mrs. Payne and her star performer. The owner’s Princess Kitty T-shirt is the only item of expressive detail, a daring statement on celebrity narcissism. It creates an eerie photographic doppelganger that shares the stage with its 3D counterpart, silently commenting on the psychologically irreconcilability of the actor/role double-life.

How incredible are the cat tricks themselves? After the hype drummed up throughout the preceding promotional half hour, the spectator is confronted with a shocking emptiness. Art is pulled through time towards its primal state. The theater collapses. The circus collapses. The street-side organ grinder collapses. All that is left is performance reduced to its most essential state: a cat batting at chimes. It may not create music, but it signals something a great deal more profound.

Whether you accept “Incredible Cat Tricks” as a documentary, vaudville spectacle, unintentional comedy or metaphorical critique of the Hollywood fame factory, Princess Kitty has a little something for everyone. Though films like “Best in Show” and “Gates of Heaven” have mined the pet-owner relationship for semi-documentary pathos before, “Incredible Cat Tricks” may come closest to the real thing.

Walrus Rating: 1.5

*This review was written in consultation with the Film Walrus’s in-house animal film expert, Klaws Kinski. Prof. Kinski sits on the National Board of Disdainful Cinematic Snobbery and on my window sill.


Unknown said...

I can't believe you made me actually intellectually consider comparisons between that movie and Citizen Kane. Yikes.

As I was reading, I can't help but see Princess Kitty as a bit of Bette Davis...

Extra points to their website for the stoic portrait of her
and also their judicious use of "registered trademark" symbols, "copyright" symbols, and "Inc."

Patti said...


Mad Dog said...

Also yes.

Unknown said...

Teaching cat tricks is really difficult. I taught my dog very easily to sit, but then i got my cat and it took forever to teach her!

FilmWalrus said...

I'm impressed by anyone who can actually teach a cat to do tricks. Having quickly lost the position of authority with respect to my cat , she has successfully taught me why I should never forget to change her litter, when to stay away because she is displeased and how to remain perfectly still for long periods so as not to disturb her napping on my lap. I don't know if those or tricks, per se, but I'm learning.