When the trailer for the movie Cats came out last summer, it was met with euphoric, gawping revulsion. The whole look of the thing was dazzlingly askew; the hybrid animation used to turn the actors feline had created something that viewers wanted both to watch and to look away from. Dislikes outnumber likes on YouTube by nearly three to one – but the video has been watched more than 16 million times.
The trailer appeared days before Boris Johnson became prime minister. The film itself was released immediately after his general election success in December. Rumours suggested that it was being edited and rejigged right up to the last minute. It was said that it was being held back from reviewers for as long as possible. The hope seemed to be for either a word-of-mouth success that would bypass critical opprobrium or a cult triumph that would revel in it.
Johnson’s electioneering worked along oddly similar lines. He campaigned with an aggressive, shambling vacancy that rendered him invulnerable. The media seemed to be letting him turn it into an election about Brexit, but his real genius was to refuse even to air the merits or otherwise of that corrosive epochal smokescreen. It is hard to argue with the thin air left behind when all political content has been whisked off. Since only the left had any ideas, it was their ideas that were targeted. How do the conservatives do it? Why does something that calls itself conservatism keep proving so convulsive, and yet seem to so many so convincing and appealing? And why is it that T.S. Eliot’s ‘practical cats’ come scampering out of the alleyway at moments of rupture in the conservative tradition?
The poems emerged out of the 1930s, a period when Eliot’s brand of extreme conservatism had had to think through – or avoid thinking through – its relationship to more obviously convulsive versions of right-wing ideology. Eliot’s neomedieval ruses were designed to be the most hopeless of lost causes, and he would have seen few affinities between his politics and Johnson’s. The more openly capricious side of his mind made its first posthumous comeback – as Skimbleshanks, Macavity and so on struck the West End – during Thatcher’s first term in office. Andrew Lloyd Webber (later elevated to the Tory benches in the House of Lords) was audaciously redefining the meaning of playgoing, creating a new type of pastiche commodity that combined many of the excitements of modern drama with nostalgia for an evanescent upper-middle-class world of West End sophistication.
I saw the new film on New Year’s Day in a little multiplex in Witney, David Cameron’s former constituency. Maybe my curiosity and confusion about the political world outside made me too eager to turn bafflement and repugnance into pleasure. But the cats in Tom Hooper’s film must be as stridently odd a vision of the cultural present as has emerged anywhere. The way they look is a stunning merger not just of the human and the creaturely, but of both with levels of technology that layer verisimilitude onto fantasy all too neatly. The songs pull us in as appealingly as they always did, and then push us back out with the same steely blandness as ever too. We end up beyond even the sway of the uncanny; something hypnotically unconvincing instead prevails.
So it does with the gallery of pastiche gentlemen and depthless chancers that fills the current cabinet. If conservatives are meant to value memory, Jennifer Hudson’s blazingly desperate go at the song of that name is a reminder of how vacant the visions of the past are that fuel conservatism’s poems and politics alike. Their vacancy is their power.
Perhaps we have reached the end of a long period when politics and thought were susceptible to critique. We keep being told that people vote for Johnson and Trump despite their flaws; it is all priced in. But something graver and giddier may be in train, whereby their flaws are positively appealing, are points of identification or cathexis. Our emperors have no clothes, but this will work wonderfully for them if enough people like emperors and nakedness. Hooper’s film is so weird partly because the cats’ intricately artful fur makes them look neither naked nor not naked. If we are at the end of the era of critique, a film in which delight and disdain are tightly joined may help in measuring where that takes us. To hold onto power, conservatism has proved willing to sacrifice all claims to substance. It is an impressive feat that the left must not seek to emulate but needs to understand.