Friday night the WHC showed Cat People (1942), the Val Lewton (prod.) and Jacques Tourneur (dir.) film that the gay inmate Molina memorably narrates early in Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (a title reminiscent of the kind of noirish, uncanny melodramas Lewton and Tourneur specialized in). At the screening, the film provoked many collective belly-laughs of glee, particularly from the female spectators. The film's kitsch features, its love-triangle manipulations, its memorably corny lines -- like "These things are simple for a psychiatrist" -- seemed to beg for arch commentary and combined to override any darker sense the film possessed.
In his opening remarks, Art History professor Alexander Nemerov spoke of his admiration of the film's beauty, but without any mention of its camp appeal, and without going into detail about the visual features that give the film its lasting appeal (it was a big grossing film for little RKO during the war): the opening shot of the panther in the cage with the shadows of the bars stretching across the cement, Alice's tense walk through light and dark, from street lamp to street lamp, in the pursuit scene, the lyrical rain then snow falling backlit in the windows, the fog into which Irena departs at the end, and always the shadows: the balustrades, the bannisters, the jalousies, the rippling water on the wall in the pool scene, and the silhouettes on walls -- the "cat" itself that Irena becomes is more often than not a shadow on a wall rather than a shape -- that seem, in German Expressionist fashion, to enact the story in dark mime. All created atmosphere galore and, as I noticed with an atmospheric film like The Others, that tension sometimes provokes nervous giggles and laughs. I remember how a group of teens began watching that film with the glee of superior derision that became less and less sustainable as they were drawn into the story and, finally, frightened. But no one was frightened at Cat People, its dialogue and acting were too firmly entrenched in the B moviedom that we enjoy, but never take seriously.
So what of the pleasure one finds in the film? Does it make it art, or not? To cite my friend Andrew, citing Louis Menand: "Art and literature are a means of providing a particular and complex kind of pleasure—and nothing more." One could say that, while CP provides pleasure, it does not provide "a particular and complex kind of pleasure." The pleasure, in part, derives from our superiority to the material, a superiority tempered by admiration at times -- how much they did with so little: the artistry of film, of image, lighting, pacing, but not of an artistic whole that truly challenges us.
But that dismissal of CP's pleasure as "not complex," may itself not be complex enough. The film can never quite lose its aura of generic product -- and so, while it never strikes us as wholly unique and original (our hero is simply too bland in the tried-and-true manner of so many wooden B-movie leads, and his realist gal Friday and ultimate paramour Alice just too breezily familiar), it does ask for a more complex response than it may have had in its own day. If only because our distance from the '40s is palpable, and its generic products, if they still have something to offer us (besides the easy nostalgia for an era we never lived through), conjure a cultural nexis we want to participate in. As one grandfatherly gent said to the youngsters seated against the wall in the back (during an impromptu intermission afforded by the film breaking -- how matinee-like!), "this was scarier in the '40s."
Yes, and like many movies that caught my attention when I was a child, CP can claim a residual suspense recalled from some early viewing when creepiness lurked simply in the threat of what horror might yet be revealed. But if so, then it couldn't have been art, however "good" as a viewing experience. Joyce's Stephen says that art cannot inspire fear -- a kinetic emotion, inimical to aesthetic contemplation. True enough, and because CP is no longer scary, then that means our admiration must be aesthetic. Yes, but it's a suitably postmodern admiration which finds its pleasure afforded by a pastiche of generic kitschy melodrama and generic kitschy horror story (one imagines Ed Wood looking on in ecstasy) transformed by truly artistic mise-en-scène, the glory of so many '40s films.