Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat. — Mark Twain
Felines – domesticated and otherwise – who can speak in human language and communicate with people quite facilely are not new to literature, folklore, television or film. There’s The Cheshire Cat, Crookshanks, Snowbell from Stuart Little, The Cat in the Hat, Garfield, Heathcliff, Mr. Bigglesworth, and Jake from The Cat from Outer Space, to name but a few of the more prosaic. There is usually very little explanation as to how or why this can happen in any given situation. Whether they’re animated in some way to appear as if they are speaking, or whether a hovering voice just seems to emanate from their fur, they can be heard and understood by humans. And it is a matter of course that the four-legged creature can somehow best his or her two-legged friends in almost every way.
In Pablo Valencia’s strange and unlikely début feature, Chatty Catties, Leonard Fishbein is a tubby, savvy, green-eyed tabby that has been around a while and knows a thing or two about life. A sophisticate, Leonard adores sushi, gourmet ice cream, and watching nature documentaries. He’s familiar with the films of Andy Warhol and can speak eloquently about world literature. But because Leonard is a shelter adoptee who lives with a young woman who is fast becoming a full-fledged alcoholic named Shelby – played by Megan Hensley in an appropriately reprehensible and hilarious over-the-top performance – he also suffers from insomnia (imagine a cat not being able to sleep!), has a stubborn case of eczema on his chin that goes untreated because his mistress keeps forgetting to buy ointment, is underfed because his mistress keeps forgetting to buy cat food, and is, understandably, grumpy as hell.
Seemingly, in the beginning of their relationship, all was well. Leonard deigns to become the unwilling art star of wannabe-filmmaker Shelby’s Super-8 films – shot and screened exclusively in their apartment. As Shelby earnestly tells a patient in the dental office where she works as the unkempt, barely-competent receptionist, her artwork “explores the themes of the sheer ambivalence of nature and the futility of life.” Shelby does not have a rosy view of things.
As this increasingly less and less adorable wreck continues to deteriorate into a 24-hour-a-day hot mess, Leonard starts to read her the riot act, chastising her for being such a loser. When Shelby invites a date over to watch one of her films, Leonard – who takes an instant liking to the affable and sweet-natured musician Nate, played by Matthew Grathwol, and who is also terribly embarrassed by his own screen presence – berates her while Nate is in the bathroom: “What the f**k is the matter with you? Making him watch this shit? Get your wig on straight!”
Leonard, as snarky and nasty as he is, gets the funniest lines. Brilliantly voiced by hearing-impaired actor, John Autry II, Leonard has a syrupy laryngeal timbre and texture to his meow, and is able to throw around fancy words like “gruesome” and “poseur” while simultaneously spitting a steady arsenal of urban slang fit for a street thug. But as the story goes on, Leonard and Shelby start to constantly bicker like a married couple whose honeymoon is long over. Shelby is truly despicable and becomes more so as her drinking problem becomes worse. When Leonard complains for the umpteenth time that she’s not giving him enough food and to please remember to get some when she goes out, she says, “If I remember, I’ll bring you something, but there’s no guarantee.” And she’s not kidding. As much as Catties is played for laughs – much of which falls depressingly flat – we do realize that there is a bad case of neglect here. No matter Leonard’s intellect, his mistress is mistreating him in the kinds of ways animal rights activists justifiably get in a bother over. At one point, he tells Nate, “Sometimes I really miss the shelter. … If Shelby were my mother, someone would have called child protective services by now.”
It’s not as if Leonard doesn’t try to save her from herself. Dispensing dating advice in order for her to hang on to an increasingly ambivalent Nate, to giving her career advice when it’s clear she’s one step away from getting fired from her job – in one scene, she casually vomits some of her hangover onto the floor beside her desk – the cat tries to intervene on what’s becoming, for him and his well-being, an alarming situation.
Mixed with “Shelby’s” Super-8 footage of Leonard and other silliness that appears throughout the film, Valencia displays a sure hand with his main protagonists and their storyline. Although some of the scenes are very crudely blocked and the editing at times lends the film way more of an experimental drug-induced wobbliness than it apparently means to have, with haphazard music cues and abrupt endings throughout, what is most problematic here are the interstitial vignettes that appear every so often (far too often) around the story of Shelby and Leonard. Completely untethered from the main narrative, we meet various people in domestic settings with their cats. It’s clear the director means to show us that Leonard and Shelby are not some anomaly and that this is an entire universe (or at least some unnamed city in North America somewhere) where cats and their owners can converse – in English – about mundane things. Most of the time, the implication is that the humans are psychological and emotional wrecks while their long-suffering cats try to steady the household with their forbearance and generous listening skills. However, the great majority of these are so badly executed in every aspect, they nearly tank the whole film. It’s deeply puzzling as to why any of it was necessary to include at all except to showcase the deaf or hearing-impaired actors voicing the felines. What is clear is how stellar Autry’s performance is compared to the other feline voices, many of which are painfully arrhythmic and badly interpreted. There is one downright creepy scene between a guy and his cat who wants to become a model (the cat does), as well as an inexplicable chorale of voices when the “camera” – it’s not clear who decides to go there – flits all over several cages of an animal shelter as we eavesdrop on various thoughts and feelings emanating from the desperate and entrapped kitties.
In Autry, Hensley and yes, even Leonard the (real) cat, Valencia finds really fine performances in a story penned by himself and co-writer Dicky Bahto that possesses substantial emotional heft. After a woefully unsuccessful intervention from Leonard and her girlfriends at Shelby’s birthday party, she does the unthinkable and angrily locks the cat in the bathroom without any food or water and leaves the apartment in her usual drunken state. As Leonard and Shelby’s relationship continues to deteriorate, the cat and the boyfriend, Nate, have started to bond. There is the realization that, for some time, the cat has been making a bid to break them up and go live with Nate. The two have a wonderful singing duet together in Shelby’s living room one evening that cements their friendship and admiration for one another.
When Nate discovers Leonard locked up and starving – he dramatically tells Nate he’s been locked up for days – Nate decides enough is enough. In a triumphant happy ending for Leonard, Nate defiantly scoops up the feline and the food he’s brought for him and tells an unrepentant Shelby, who’s come back from her adventures with a fur hat and still no cat food, that he’s leaving her – and taking her cat with him. With a dignified and haughty “Good day, Shelby” from Leonard, the two head for the door.
Perhaps this might not be the most memorable talking cat picture ever made – probably not. But Valencia is to be commended for attempting a first feature with an enormous amount of risk-taking. Its small triumphs in illustrating a fresh and contemporary view on intimate relationships outweigh its missteps, creating an unexpected and utterly original emotional landscape. I know many felines, along with their deeply flawed masters and mistresses, who would concur.
© FIPRESCI 2015