Animal Behavior

ESSAY by Kate Blair

I’m watching my cat, Ira, curled up on my legs as I type. He sleeps when he wants, expresses his distaste with being handled too much, licks his genitals in mixed company. He can jump three times his height. His tongue is an entire portable hygiene apparatus. He cries when my girlfriend leaves the house for extended periods, or when he is removed from the company of his cat friends. He finds my presence comforting and often climbs in my lap – as he is now – to sleep, and runs to the door when my girlfriend or I come home every day. Ira uses his own form of language to communicate when he is content or discontent; when he wants something. He has language. Feelings. Guided more by instinct than reason. Outside of human law. I can’t stop watching. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

My favorite on-screen cats are in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). The whole movie seems vaguely improvised. The cats introduce an uncontrolled element, the movie is reality caught unawares. Actors enter and exit the frame and reappear again as if trying to dodge the camera; life continues outside the frame of the film. In L’Atalante, Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) are newlyweds honeymooning aboard Jean’s ship. Pere Jules (Michel Simon), the ship’s captain, has a collection of strange toys and an affection for the group of felines that roam about the boat. A cat has a litter in what was supposed to be Jean and Juliette’s bed. The kittens stumble around a cluttered array of Pere Jules’ toys. The camera watches over them.

I’m drawn to the uncontrollable. In one of the earliest Lumiere Brothers films, Baby’s Dinner (1895), the audience was fascinated by the trees in the background of the shot, a moving photograph. The tableau contained elements the cinematic camera was unable to tame. The baby is too young to pose for the camera. It offers its dinner to the camera man. I’m reminded of the wind whipping through the grass and the sudden passing of a cloud from my favorite scene in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). These scenes, the passing cloud and the moving trees—more cats, untamed, unpredictable.

Kate Blair (MAPH ’13) focused on Cinema and Media Studies during her time at MAPH and continues to write about film periodically on her blog Selective Viewing. She currently resides in Chicago with her cat, Ira. 

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