Family-friendly feline film festival just purrrr-fect

Henri, le Chat Noir, the existential black cat, is one of the stars of the Internet Cat Video Festival screening Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Courtesy of Will Braden

Henri, le Chat Noir, the existential black cat, is one of the stars of the Internet Cat Video Festival screening Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Call it Apocalypse Meow. Or maybe Purrmageddon.

Too much? Can we at least claim that a serious case of cat-scratch fever will sink its tiny and sharp yet adorable claws into the Bluff City when the "Must Love Cats!" festival slinks into the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art on Valentine's Day?

The family-friendly feline-themed event — with music (Opera Memphis representatives will perform Rossini's humorous "Duet for Two Cats"), performance art (feline-costumed Patty Carreras will spend the evening chasing a laser pointer) and cocktails (Cathead Vodka, of course) — provides a context for two screenings of the Internet Cat Video Festival, an anthology that's nothing to sneeze at, unless you're allergic: The program presents highlights from 75 cat videos in 65 minutes.

Expect the fur to fly, along with laughter and the appreciative "oohs" and "awws" of cat lovers.

The Brooks screening marks the start of a five-city tour for the feline film festival, which attracted an audience of more than 10,000cat fanciers when it debuted Aug. 30 on the lawn of Minneapolis' Walker Art Center.

The cat compilation was conceived and curated by Scott Stulen, a project director at the Walker who will introduce the Internet Cat Video Festival screenings at 7 and 9 p.m. Thursday at the Brooks.

Stulen admits he was surprised that the online phenomenon of the cat video landed so emphatically on its feet when making the leap from the laptop and cellphone to the big screen. The success of the project demonstrated that "people have a passion for cat videos," Stulen said.

That's an understatement. As most everybody knows, the cat video has become perhaps the most ubiquitous concept or meme on the Internet, making the humble house cat the King of Beasts in the YouTube jungle and the amateur videographer's most reliable superstar.

"Surprised Kitty," a 17-second clip in which an adorably expressive kitten is tickled on its fuzzy tummy, has been viewed some 68 million times in the past three years. The 56-second "Two Talking Cats" has been watched 52 million times since 2007.

Other videos aren't so documentarian but are almost as popular. "Charlie Schmidt's Keyboard Cat," in which a cat inside a puppet appears to be playing an electric piano, has attracted 29 million viewers. Meanwhile, cat video auteur William Braden of Seattle has attracted millions of fans with his series "Henri, le Chat Noir: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat," a cycle of shorts starring a tuxedo-patterned black cat who is part Morris, part Sartre.

Stulen said the Internet Cat Video Festival represents a meow mix of "shaky-cam cellphone footage" and "self-conscious, even elaborate productions." The lineup includes clever obscurities and familiar "greatest hits.

"It's like a rock show; people love the hits," he said. "They cheer even if they've seen it a million times."

As Stulen writes on the Walker website, the Internet Cat Video Festival was intended to be "an embrace of an Internet phenomena" and also an "experiment to transform a solitary online viewing experience into a real world social event." In other words, he writes, "It's not about watching cat videos, it's about watching cat videos together."

Stulen said the Walker received more than 10,000 nominations from around the world last year after the museum announced it was planning a cat video program. "We learned that Japan, Brazil and Australia are big cat countries," he said. The festival ends with a countdown of the most popular shorts.

Elain Harvey, founder of the House of Mews at 933 S. Cooper, isn't surprised by the popularity of the videos. The windows of Harvey's feline sanctuary, cat adoption agency and gift shop are smeary with fingerprints from the passers-by who peer through the glass daily, eager for a closer look at the 140 or so felines in residence.

"There's nothing like having a cat snuggled up in your lap and purr in your ear," she said, trying to explain the animal's appeal.

True, but video cats can't snuggle with their viewers, so why do YouTube surfers love feline groovy (to paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel)? Are cat videos simply escapist fun? Or does this phenomenon offer an opportunity for some serious (cat) food for thought?

Stulen said that as he and his associates watched "literally thousands of videos" to prepare their cat-alog of shorts, he came to realize that the cat video is "a relevant form of expression."

"I came away with a whole new appreciation for the genre," he said, adding that the festival is "not mocking the cat video, or doing it ironically." Rather, the Internet Cat Video Festival demonstrates that what appears to be "a silly, frivolous, throwaway art form" can become meaningful as a communal experience. The museum context helps "elevate" the form, making its value more apparent.

But why do cats and kittens rule the Internet? Why not dogs and puppies?

Stulen has a theory: He thinks the cat's apparent indifference is catnip to viewers. In other words, cats are mysterious and play hard to get, like Greta Garbo ("I vant to be alone"), while dogs are eager-to-please, in-your-face hams like Mickey Rooney.

"There's a cuteness to puppies as well as cats, but you feel like a puppy is performing for the human, while the cat could care less," Stulen said. Or, as Henri muses in one of his films: "Only an idiot would surrender his dignity to this folly."

'Must Love Cats!' Party and Internet Cat Video Festival

Thursday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Overton Park. From 6 to 9 p.m., activities include a family-friendly feline-themed party, with music from Opera Memphis and DJ Superman, plus art construction and cat toy-making activities, a Valentine's card-making station, performance art, and a cash bar. Cat Video Festival screenings at 7 and 9 p.m. Admission: $10, or $8 for museum members. For more information or advance tickets, call 901-544-6208, or visit brooksmuseum.org.

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