Cat Show Dir. Donna Lipowitz

[Filmbuff; 2015]

Styles: documentary, cats
Others: Trekkies, Best in Show, Animal Planet, Tumblr gifs

Cats. Curious creatures, they are. They are both loyal and independent, but their loyalty often feels more like possession; as someone who shares his home with feline brethren and sistren, I am never sure if my wife and I are their stewards or servants. They are aloof to most of what transpires around them, but spend untold stretches of time enthralled by a pinprick of light or a dangling thread. They move regally across all manner of surfaces with an air of grace and sophistication, then pause, briefly, before folding suddenly in upon themselves to lick their own asshole for five or so straight minutes. Their beguiling mix of delicacy and strength has allowed them to burrow into even the most calcified of hearts; “they are my teachers,” Bukowski wrote of his feline companions, and Hemingway referred to his thirty-plus cats as “purr factories” and “love sponges.” The internet has rendered cats so ubiquitous that those with allergies are advised to avoid using social media without first taking a Benadryl, and yet there is a lingering stigma attached to cat ownership, a whiff of the social outcast, the so-called “crazy cat lady” (and thank you Michael Showalter for assuring us that guys can be cat ladies too) which simply will not go away.

Generally speaking, cat lovers, owners, and fanciers alike acknowledge the condescending light in which greater society casts them; some will simply shrug it off while others will grow defensive, sometimes launching into hysterically earnest anti-dog rants or whipping out their iPhone to show you several dozen photos of their dear Ms. Whiskers. There is, however, one subset which occasionally draws derision even from within the ranks of fellow cat owners who are baffled by the preening, the pageantry, the aggrandizing, the investment of both time and money, and the overall mental and emotional predisposition of its members: I refer, of course, to those who participate in cat shows, offering their pets for public adoration and judgment, little furry surrogates for their own approval-seeking and attention-starved selves.

Or at least that’s the stereotype, the easiest caricature with which to summarily dismiss an entire heterogenous subculture. You won’t find any such condemnation in Donna Lipowitz’s slim documentary Cat Show, no Diane Arbusian portraits of the absurd, unusual, or freakish. This is neither Trekkies for the competitive cat circuit, exploring its milieu through a combination of anthropological inquiry and gentle ridicule, nor is it a nonfiction feline twist on Best in Show, mining its participants’ lives for mocking melodrama. Instead, you’ll be treated to an oddly compelling and ultimately sweet portrait of Carly Marno and her Himalayan show cat Tango as they shuffle from one competition to the next across western Europe, racking up ribbons and rosettes in the process.

Carly is a sweet, self-effacing twenty seven year old from Coventry who acknowledges how unorthodox and potentially off-putting her hobby is, but refuses to sacrifice the sense of pride and accomplishment she feels showing her beloved prize-winning Tango. She admits to having found the world of cat competitions a bit strange and unappealing herself — until Tango started racking up points. Since, she’s found that the cat fanciers she meets along the way are mostly just like herself: decent, good-natured people who are enthusiastic about cats in general and their cats in particular, who enjoy making new friends who share their interests, and who welcome the opportunity to socialize without having to self-consciously omit a large part of their identity for fear of ridicule, incredulity, or pestering inquiry.

I say “mostly just like herself” because Carly is different from the average cat shower in one significant way: she is blind. There are logistic implications from this: Carly is largely reliant upon her friends to get to and from many of the competitions, but this has strengthened her bond with the individuals she has met and befriended through the cat show circuit. There are also aesthetic implications: Carly’s choice to breed and show Himalayan cats is because, as she says, “all their beauty is in their coats, and I can manage their coats” by touch and feel. And there are also emotional implications, though they are less pronounced: Carly uses visual language in describing her cats and her verdant homeland of Ireland, she is aware of the reputation these things and places hold for the sighted, but she can only feign an understanding of what those signifiers actually signify — by successfully showing Tango, a creature whom she has both accepted as and groomed to be beautiful, the approval and coronation meted out by judges and peers alike act as a surrogate for Carly’s own absent sight, a confirmation of her ideals and her efficacy.

Tango is not, however, simply a metonym or synecdoche for Carly’s conception and realization of beauty, a purring and pooping aesthetics of form. He is, first and foremost, a friend, a companion, a cohabitant, and a codependent. There is of course an inescapable irony to be found in the basic premise of a blind woman competitively showing her cat, and Lipowitz doesn’t fail to include admissions from their judges and participants alike that for cats — unlike dogs, who are also judged for their obedience and mastery of skills and tricks — these shows are little more than beauty pageants, doling out points based upon an overwhelmingly superficial metric. But her film’s overriding thesis hems much more closely to the belief expressed by one of the organizers who says earnestly and with no hint of patronizing insincerity that after the show, “you’re always taking the best cat home, regardless of what the judges think.”

For Carly, who candidly expresses the isolation and discomfort that comes from being around a sighted public which tiptoes too cautiously around her, the greatest prize to be won is a loving circle of friends of whom she says, “I hate to use the word, but they treat me like somebody normal.” In this regard it is Tango who pulls Carly along from competition to competition as much as it is her bringing him. And since cats shown at competitions sponsored by The International Cat Association are awarded points which accrue over the course of a season, Tango’s high ranking is not simply reflective of breeding and grooming alone, but of tenacity and perseverance. “You always have to have an impossible goal,” Carly says at one point, and if nothing else, the tour of several countries that she undertakes as she hopscotches among ever-larger competitions is in itself an impressive accomplishment, one which is buffeted and bolstered by the accolades Tango draws along the way.

As Carly and Tango enter Ireland, she remarks that the Customs agent inspected Tango’s passport but not her own. I’d like to believe that Lipowitz included this detail as a metaphor for the greater network of cat shows she’s exploring, where the objectifying critique of the animals is a mechanism put in place to facilitate a system of inclusion, acceptance, and non-judgment for their human counterparts. It’s just as likely, however, that Cat Show is nothing more than a biographical sketch of someone out of the ordinary, someone who the general public might deign a “curiosity” on at least two fronts. If so, it’s still delightful, and there’s nothing wrong with stripping back the veneer of the superficially entertaining to see what kind of deeper undercurrents keep it afloat.

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