I think it was George Saunders who said that the worst comment a writer can receive about his or her work is that it’s merely interesting. “I love this” is gratifying. “I want to sleep with you now” is what writers are actually gunning for. But “That was interesting” is just awful because it’s not enough to be interesting — you want it to be good.
Besides that, “interesting” is an equivocal word even when it’s used sincerely. It’s what people say when a work doesn’t hook them. “Interesting” is a polite filler sound, a way for someone to accentuate the positive and avoid saying that what they really feel is indifference or negativity.
So the positive first: Catnip is an interesting movie.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Director: Kevin Dayrit
Release Date: TBD
Liv (Lauren Young) and Cieca (Maxene Megalona) are two good friends. Liv is a young lady all the guys want. We see a few of them try to ask her out in awkward, old-fashioned ways, the best of which involves Skype. Liv is blind and deaf to their advances. Her dad is horribly abusive, so she confides a lot in Ceica, a nerdy friend who lives away from her parents in her own place. Ceica’s home is spare, with a wall full of carefully arranged empty picture frames — Wes Anderson gone Mondrian. Some people put stuffed moose heads on the wall, others prefer metaphors.
If Catnip is driven by anything, it’s different exercises in style. We go from heavily-filtered footage to stylized slow-motion shots to satiny images full of lens flare to some desaturated footage and so on. I think “exercises” is a key word. So much of the film feels like it’s playing with style rather than telling a compelling story. Given some of the visual ideas that director Kevin Dayrit uses, Catnip is interesting in that regard. And yet since all the focus is on style rather than substance, the movie is interesting only at a superficial level. It never finds its way to those visceral, emotional, or intellectual levels.
For instance, Dayrit uses fake product ads as a buffer between scenes. There are three that I can recall, each one a redone version of an actual logo and slogan. These fake ads comment on what’s transpired in the previous scene, but they never feel essential to the story. The ads aren’t even used after the first third of the movie. Since it’s just used for kicks, the ads call attention to themselves. I was left wondering how they played into the larger ideas about abuse, friendship, and family. They don’t, so they’re interesting and nothing more.
There are similar scenes later in Catnip that are interesting in theory but didn’t hold interest. School gets cancelled one day so Liv and Ceica decide to hang out watching movies. The camera holds position from just behind the TV while the two friends sit and observe like they’re in an Ozu film. They watch one movie. And they watch another movie. They watch some more. They eat popcorn. They barely talk or say anything to each other. They probably see four or five films in this scene. It felt like the scene was about as long as four or five films.
Nothing is revealed in this movie watching scene that we didn’t know already. The characters are static, and there’s no emotional weight in this moment. In some films, these scenes function as a form of texture, adding depth and new insight to what’s already known. Yet like so much else in Catnip, this moment is so mannered and not a place where new subtleties reveal themselves. We are watching people watching a movie, and I wanted to watch what they were watching instead since it would probably hold my attention more than this film.
So much of Catnip is jarring, and not just its shifts in visual style and little exercises with images. The last third of the movie makes an unexpected tonal shift. I assumed this movie was going to get dark, but it’s suddenly a pitch black torture porn movie. Nothing in the film sets up this change or its character revelations, so it feels like a poorly realized plot twist for the sake of being there. Like those product ads from much earlier in the film. Those ads serve no larger purpose, but why not throw them in? The difference is that the random stuff at the end of Catnip is all about the randomness of characterization rather than just random visual gags.
Managing such drastic tonal and visual shifts takes a lot of skill and consideration. Each change should communicate more than just the mere fact of change. In Catnip we leap from interview footage with Liv and Ceica, and Skype stuff, and very indie movie camera work, and very art film camera work. There’s no cohesion in style, there’s no coherence in story. It’s almost like watching different movies stitched together without regard for emotional continuity.
Some of the footage in Catnip was shot via the characters’s camera phones. The images are shaky and poorly framed, and yet we hear Liv and Ceica giggling because they’re having a good time. They’ll probably have a laugh later on when they watch the video they just took. Like a lot of camera phone footage, Catnip is more interesting to the people who made it than to any strangers who watch it.