“I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” – Filmmaker Jean Cocteau (Orpheus; Beauty and the Beast)
National Cat Day is October 29, a day designed to both honor our feline friends and lend support to cats in need. There are an estimated 74 million pet cats in the United States, in 36 million households, so odds are many of you reading this have a cat in your home or a family member’s house, and we also know you are documentary fans. In honor of this special day, and as both a cat and film lover myself, I wanted to combine those two things together.
There are of course a number of good, solid nature documentaries about our wily feline friends (including National Geographic’s excellent Cats: Caressing the Tiger and The Secret Life of Cats, and for those in the U.K., the Joanna Lumley-hosted The Wonderful World of Cats) but for National Cat Day I wanted to take a look at some of the more interesting docs that aren’t necessarily cat-centered but in which, whether they are a directly part of the story or not, house cats are given their proper due as an emotional presence in the lives of many (from artists to urbanites).
The cats in the title of this incredibly moving, award-winning film (which aired on Independent Lens) are in the artwork of 80-year-old artist Jimmy Mirikitani. He was found living on the streets of New York, and after 9/11 was taken in to live with filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, who helped him reacclimate himself and eventually reconnect with family. We learn more about the Japanese-born artist’s epic past: despite holding a dual citizenship (born in California but raised in Japan), Mirikitani was forced in WWII to spend several years in an internment camp that claimed hundreds of lives, including that of a young friend he’s never forgotten and who shared his love of cats.
More of Mirikitani’s cat paintings can be seen in this gallery.
Also about a one-of-a-kind artist, Almost There [official site], the lively but intimate film by Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, is about what it means to grow old in America, how this process can be complicated by mental illness, and how the whole bizarre panoply of life can be redeemed by art. Peter Anton, the irascible man at the center of this doc, who has been chronicling his life in a massive, illustrated autobiography, was chosen as one of the year’s “Unforgettables” by CinemaEye (honoring non-fiction film’s most memorable characters). IndieWire‘s Sam Adams called the film “a quietly spectacular exploration of aging, outsider art, and cats.”
While this isn’t a “cat doc” but rather a portrait of an artist, those darned cats were an ever-present part of Anton’s life and his artwork. At one point Anton reveals he’d created a color-schemed chart to track which of his cats sat in his lap and for how long. If you want to see what it means to truly love a cat that you have lost, a heartbreaking scene where Anton talks about the cats of the past is hard to forget, but there’s a happier note near the end in his moving reunion with a cat that’s sticking with him.
Sadly in some ways the ultimate stereotype or epitome of the “crazy cat lady,” the eccentric mother-daughter duo “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy, were captured on film in cinema verite fashion by the Maysles brothers in both the unforgettable Grey Gardens and the follow-up The Beales of Grey Gardens. The eccentric Beales opened up their once-beautiful but now derelict mansion in East Hampton, NY to numerous cats (and raccoons, and fleas). Despite mental illness, they at least took better care of their cats than they often did themselves or their house, though their “hoarder” mentality probably wasn’t great for the kitties either. [Scene from Grey Gardens below:]
Speaking of cat ladies, the 2009 documentary Cat Ladies is a portrait of several women who alternately defy and embrace (and reinforce) that stereotype. For various reasons (loneliness, love of and empathy for these furry creatures, addictive personalities, singledom, the need to care for critters, and so on), these ladies have taken in an extraordinary number of felines under their roofs. It’s touching, heartwarming and a bit sad to see the lengths they’ll go to for their furry friends.
The Private Life of a Cat (1944)
Called “the best experimental film about cats ever made” by The Atlantic, this silent, black and white documentary by renowned experimental director Alexander Hammid follows the quiet life of two cats, a male and a female known in the film simply as He and She, as they raise a litter of kittens in an apartment (warning for those squeamish about such things: mama cat giving birth is shown!) Born Alexandr Hackenschmied, Hammid was married to Maya Deren, a hugely influential avant-garde filmmaker in her own right.
And now for something a bit different, the Independent Lens film Stray Dog, by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), is the portrait of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran who struggles to get past inner demons while also being an incredibly loving dad, husband, friend, and caretaker of dog. But our favorite scene may be the one in which Ron is playing surrogate “mom” to a litter full of kittens who practically overwhelm him.
Cats as a Phenomenon
VICE produced a film called Lil Bub and Friendz that explores the overwhelmingly popular phenomenon of viral cat videos. The film won Best Feature at Tribeca’s Online Film Festival and got the attention of festival founder Robert DeNiro. One of several short cat docs posted on VICE’s site, Lil Bub focuses primarily on the titular cat with an unusual appearance (due to genetic mutations) who became an internet sensation. Fellow internet sensation Grumpy Cat also appears in the documentary. (The less said about the Grumpy Cat Christmas movie the better.)
Available to watch online here.
Cats were frequent visitors to Chris Marker’s films, whether directly or indirectly, a recurring motif if you will. Writer Adrian Danks wrote about this in an essay on Senses of Cinema, “The Cats in the Hats Come Back; or “at least they’ll see the cats”: Pussycat Poetics and the Work of Chris Marker“:
Marker’s peculiar attraction to cats is not something I can second guess or fully account for but perhaps it lies in the animal’s powers of observation (alertness), their idiosyncrasy, variation and appropriateness for portraiture, their unreadable intelligence, their ability to gaze back or to offer a gaze that is not regulated by our own, and their dual status as both animals that we train and which train us (and perhaps train us to gaze upon them, film them, and graft them into our films). No other filmmaker is as openly obsessed with cats as Marker. But cats are also a preoccupation – or shared, elective affinity – of other directors identified with the Parisian Left Bank such as Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais. It is also an affinity or emblem shared with less bonded filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Rouben Mamoulian – Melville’s own cats feature in 1970’s Le cercle rouge, for instance. But no other filmmaker has offered the space, time, place or formal means to allow these cats to enter. Thus cats appear due to the manner of Marker’s cinema without needing to be the subject of the work itself. It is only in Chats perches (The Case of the Grinning Cat, 2004) and some of the short video work, such as 2007’s Leila Attacks, that the cat (or its image) takes centre stage [Editor’s note: In that last film, Leila seems to actually be the pet rat who chases off the scaredy cat.]
As Danks adds, “We wait, for these cats – some of us at least – like we might wait for the appearance of Hitchcock in one of his films.”
If this Marker short “Chat écoutant la musique (Cat Listening to Music, 1990)” — in which a cat naps atop a player piano — doesn’t put you into a pleasantly meditative state, nothing will.
Marker’s more recent film The Case of the Grinning Cat was a provocative and witty investigation after the filmmaker became intrigued in 2001, as did many other Parisians, “by the sudden appearance of alluring portraits of grinning yellow cats on buildings, Metro walls and other public surfaces. Marker’s cinematic efforts to document the mysterious materializations of this charming feline throughout Paris are a recurring theme” (Icarus Films). The film is available via Fandor, Amazon, and Icarus.
This new film about street cats in Istanbul, Turkey was recently bought by well-regarded arthouse distributor Oscilloscope. I haven’t had a chance to view Kedi yet (clearly it’s right up my… alley) but Joe Leydon in Variety wrote:
Early in Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s splendidly graceful and quietly magical documentary about the multifaceted feline population of Istanbul, a human inhabitant of the city notes: “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.” All of which might explain why so many of the movie’s four-legged subjects come across not as feral orphans who rely on the kindness of strangers, but rather as slumming royals who occasionally deign to interact with two-legged acolytes.
Another film to keep an eye out for when they complete and release it is The Cat Rescuers, which is about cat-loving volunteers in Brooklyn working to very humanely help the city’s feral cat problem.
Lastly, here are 20 ways to celebrate National Cat Day.
What are some of your own favorite documentary films that feature cats in some way?