On Wednesday night, I spent what was genuinely one of the most gleeful hours of my adult life in a darkened auditorium, in the company of 250 strangers. This was the sold-out Manhattan debut of the Internet Cat Video Festival, a live, curated screening organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center since 2012.
While previous incarnations of the festival have taken place outdoors, complete with carnivalesque attractions like face painting and food trucks, this week's event was hosted by the Japan Society, in the nonprofit's elegant headquarters a block from the United Nations.
But the Japan Society — which presented the festival in conjunction with Life of Cats, a special exhibition of ukiyo-e woodcut prints from the Edo Period that explores the integral place of cats in Japanese culture — embraced the whimsy wholeheartedly. Feline-themed beverages like "meow-jitos" were served at the afterparty. Visitors were invited to fold their own paper cat ears, which a great many of them did, with relish.
The festival drew a more mature crowd than you might expect, with a median age of roughly 35. Think museumgoers, not Internet weirdos. But qualities like age, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation all fall by the wayside when confronted with the true nature of one's soul: all of us had gathered together because we are crazy cat people.
(If you, reading this, are not yourself a crazy cat person, then I'm afraid you've just walked into the wrong neighborhood.)
Sadly, no cats were allowed in the building — this was definitely for the best; by the end of the screening, the sight of a cat would have triggered a Beatlemania-level thermo-emotional meltdown — but we were treated to an introduction from Shinji Kasahara, the self-described "human dad" of Theo the talking cat, a bona fide Internet celebrity in Japan. (Kasahara is also a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering, NBD.)
"Although Theo is not here, I tried to be as cute as possible," Kasahara said, referring to his fedora and natty plaid trousers.
Kasahara brought along a video, which he prefaced with a quick Japanese lesson. On screen, he arrives at his apartment and announces tadaima ("I'm home!"), to which Theo responds either okaeri ("Welcome home!") or bakayaro ("Idiot"), depending on his mood.
Finally, Theo — a beautiful, green-eyed black cat — begrudgingly purrs something that vaguely sounds like "welcome," and we are thrilled. (After the screening, I found myself waiting in line for drinks behind Kasahara and felt genuinely starstruck.)
Sponsored by Animal Planet, the evening's programming consisted of a tightly edited 70-minute reel organized into sections like Drama, Comedy, and Action/Adventure. Some videos featured cameos by dogs, birds, sheep, and lizards, but cats are invariably their emotional center. Most of the videos are short and sweet — some are Vines, many more unfold in less than half a minute — with little to no introduction.
The sources of these clips are myriad, produced by professional filmmakers as well as giggling pet owners recording vertically on their iPhones. Besides the classically conceived YouTube genre of Cats Doing Weird and/or Cute Things in the Home, there is security camera footage, animation, short films (including the sublime Henri waxing poetic on the indignities of spring), music videos, a mini-documentary about a kitten stuck in a car engine (he's fine!), and even TV bloopers.
I consider myself highly Internet cat video literate, but I was pleasantly surprised that I'd never seen the vast majority of these videos before — although some favorites, like surprised kitty and this little guy loudly welcoming his human home, did make an appearance.
I cannot overstate how much I laughed that night. Cats are natural masters of deadpan comic timing, and their full repertoire was on display: knocking things over, licking themselves, glaring, napping, sitting on and in things, literally biting the hands that feed them, and demanding attention in any way possible.
The Vintage section of the screening was a special treat. There was old-timey footage of boxing cats, as well as a newsreel segment on showcats ("She's exceedingly annoyed at the moment," a Margaret Dumont type says of the visibly cranky Siamese squirming in her arms.)
Other highlights: a pair of engineers calculating the PSI of tiny cat paws standing on a human crotch, Tara the Hero Cat, and an interlude titled "Cats Vs. Things," which depicted cats locked in heated battle with everything from a printer to a humidifier to a potato to a theremin. I'd also recommend checking out the spookily gorgeous cat-starring music video for the Midnight Juggernauts' "Systematic."
But the true beauty of the Internet Cat Video Festival is the offline, collective experience it creates. The response of the people around me — shrieking with laughter, cooing, cheering, gasping — was just as delightful as the feline antics on screen.
What follows is a list of real things I heard adult humans say during the screening:
- As a cat cleverly opens the lock on its cage: "You can do it!" "He's smart!"
- As a cat paws at a toaster: "This is the kind of thing Hazel does."
- As a cat rides a sheep: "That's what I'm talking about!"
- As a cat sips "booze" from a martini glass: "Nooooo!"
- "Kitty liiiiikes that."
- Disbelievingly, after a cat performs a series of Mission Impossible-style stunts in pursuit of a toy: "That cat was trained."
- When a cat adeptly slides down a fire pole: "Oh my god!"
- "What a sweeeeeeet kitty." [I may have said this one myself. I am not ashamed.]
Afterwards, I joined many of my fellow festivalgoers in strolling through the Life of Cats exhibition.
The cats seen in these stunning prints are bursting with personality, and their interactions with their humans (cuddling, climbing, ignoring, harassing, or attempting to murder) are familiar enough to easily transcend centuries and continents.
For example: This is how the label for a mid-19th-century Kuniyoshi print titled Shohei, from the series Sixteen Female Sennin Charming Creatures, describes the dynamic between the woman and cat that it portrays: "She apparently had a stomach ache, but her cat, busy eating fish as his afternoon snack, does not seem to care much about her."
The appearance of cats in these woodcuts provides an instant personal connection to the work, particularly the domestic scenes, the same way a photo of a landmark becomes vastly more interesting when a dear friend of yours is beaming into the camera in the foreground.
Life of Cats is on through June 7, and is definitely worth a visit — but I will say that the Internet Cat Video Festival screening was the perfect prologue to this exhibition. There's something downright magical about grown adults reacting to centuries-old art by exclaiming, "Kitty!" (I personally witnessed this happen twice, with two different people.)
Here's the full playlist of videos from the Internet Cat Video Festival:
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.