On Saturday afternoon, as the Chicago International Film Festival unspooled across town and audiences sat through brooding German family dramas and biopics from Denmark, Julianna Cueuas, of Andersonville, reclined in a small auditorium at the Irish American Heritage Center on the Northwest Side and watched many, many cat videos. She was far from alone. She was surrounded by hundreds of cat lovers wearing cat T-shirts and topped with furry fake cat ears, the pointed tips silhouetted against the bright movie screen.
Cueuas batted tears from her face — the result of convulsive laughter. One of the films, only seconds long, featured a cat on a dresser. The cat stared icily at the cameraman. Without warning, the animal swiped at an aspirin bottle, sending it to the floor. Then, with obvious disdain, the cat looked again at the cameraman.
Cut to black.
"It was such a funny, simple, perfect film," Cueuas said afterward. "The cat hits the bottle of aspirin, it falls, the cat looks up. And that's it. It's so right! I can relate: I have two dogs and an (expletive) cat at home."
Chances are you missed the Internet Cat Video Festival in the Mayfair neighborhood on Saturday. It was a benefit for Chicago Cat Rescue and Tree House Humane Society. Don't feel badly: Only about 3,500 attended the five screenings of cat videos over the course of the day. On the other hand, meow wow wow, about 3,500 people attended five big-screen showings of cat videos on Saturday! So that future generations know, it was a nice autumn day, too.
Consider this a festival report: On a bench outside the screening room sat Betsy Ray, 70, and daughter Dale Ray, 50. "There are underlying themes to some of these films," Betsy said. "Right, Dale?"
"The nature of catdom?" Betsy suggested.
"Maybe. You do notice certain tropes," Dale agreed, "certain behavior you wouldn't see on horse videos."
"Either way, it's an opportunity to see what a curated assortment of cat videos might look like," Betsy said.
Thank Scott Stulen for that.
Stulen, a project director and curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, organized the first Internet Cat Video Festival there in 2012. It was Labor Day weekend, attendance was free and more than 10,000 people showed up. Last month, the festival moved to the Minnesota State Fair, where it drew a paying audience of 11,000. (A week earlier, Depeche Mode drew 8,000 to the same venue.) "The Walker loves this," Stulen said. "We're hitting an audience we would never have reached at all. Though what I like about it especially is that a cat video festival is between mainstream culture and high art. It makes both sides uncomfortable — the people who don't usually attend art exhibitions and don't know what to make of our participation, and the people in the art world who just don't get it at all."
For the past year Stulen — who is actually allergic to cats but is fond of saying that dogs have dog parks, so cats should get the Internet — has been taking the festival on tour. The charming, 75-minute survey of the world of cat videos has played at South By Southwest, drawn 6,000 people to an Oakland screening, been shown on the side of a castle in Ireland and featured at film festivals in Jerusalem and Vienna. "It works well everywhere," Stulen said, "because, like silent films, perhaps, there is no culture and language barrier with a cat video."
Greeting an audience before a Saturday screening, he said this was really about making an online community a real community: "It's not about cats. Or cat videos. It's about watching cat videos together."
In the hallway between showings, Cemile Biyiktay, a 29-year-old video game designer from Turkey who wore fake cat ears (but who did not come to the United States solely to attend a cat video festival), seconded Stulen and laughed: "Coming to something like this, seeing other people? It's a relief. You know you're not alone."
Yes, the Internet Cat Video Festival was very much a film festival, with like-minded aficionados and celebrities. There was a cat adoption area on the front lawn (ironically, cats weren't allowed to attend the festival inside). There were tacos made of felt and stuffed with catnip for sale. A cat-ear-headband-making station. Cat-centric authors signing books. Temporary cat tattooing.
As at Cannes, the audience was very vocal. "Awwwwwww" and "Ohhhhhhh" and "Adorable!" could be heard coming from the auditorium all day long. But, because this is Chicago, and our film festivals don't generally draw the star power of other film festivals, there was no Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub or any other famous Internet cats in attendance. There was only (in a harness, outside) Rocky, one of the cats from Chicago filmmakers Alana Grelyak and Michael Gabriele's cat film, "Catalogue."
There was also Will Braden of Seattle, whose black-and-white cat, Henri, is the solemn star of the black-and-white favorite "Henri 2: Paw de Deux," a satire of existential angst and French filmmaking. Braden sat behind a table signing copies of his (Random House published) novelty book of Henri musings. The cat himself, Braden explained, was back in Seattle. Braden wants the feline to retain its "mystique," he said. Besides, he added: "Henri is a good cat, but he might bolt. Then I'd lose my best friend and my meal ticket."
And the films?
As with any festival, it was a mixed bag. Some films lasted minutes, many only seconds. "It's like curating paintings," Stulen said. "Some are interesting, some original and some derivative." Still, despite an audience well versed in the classics — Keyboard Cat, Maru the Cat Who Likes Cardboard Boxes — the usual suspects did not appear to have lost their power to delight: Watching Grumpy Cat with people who have watched Grumpy Cat many, many times before is to witness an audience attuned to emotional inflection.
Also like many film festivals, selections were sorted by genre: documentaries, comedies, kittens.
Some patterns developed. Cats, being natural Buster Keatons, pratfall, stumble though harrowing situations, find themselves haunted by parakeets and cuddled by mice. But always land on their feet. Nevertheless, the film Saturday with the overweight tabby who really wants to fit into a vase? (Can he do it?!) The audience held its breath. Indeed, even the nailbiter about the cat dressed as a shark chasing a duck while riding a Roomba — titled "Cat In A Shark Costume Chases A Duck While Riding A Roomba" — had a shock ending.
In the final moments, just when you think you know what'll happen, a dog enters! Dressed like a shark!
Sorry: Spoiler alert.