A purring, drowsy looking Siamese kitten rests belly-up on a jeans-clad lap, arms outstretched, front paws absently paddling in the air. For the briefest moment, the kitten pauses, eyes drooping, and then begins its paddling anew.
Ten seconds later, the video was over, and three bespectacled arts professionals sitting around a conference table in Somerville last Thursday looked away from the large television suspended on the wall and commenced their deliberations.
“He’s so cute,” said Vera Vidal, an intern at the Somerville Arts Council.
“He’s really cute,” said Jef Czekaj, a children’s book author and SAC volunteer.
“He’s awesome! I want him!” said SAC program manager Rachel Strutt.
Gordon Nelson, a bearded man sitting at a laptop at the front of the room, smiled approvingly. For weeks, the Somerville Community Access Television staffer had been fielding a steady stream of submissions for the Copy Cat Festival, a Somerville Arts Council event intended “to celebrate the profound cultural contributions of cats.”
The three-hour program, slated for Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m., will include screenings of cat videos —
But last Thursday, the group of volunteer judges had convened to hammer out the order of the festival’s centerpiece: a 25-minute screening of locally produced cat videos. Nelson was running the show, and “Jazz Hands,” the Siamese kitten film, was one of his favorites. Although the video
failed to fill the screen, with thick black bars framing the shot on both sides — suggesting it was taken by someone holding a cellphone vertically — he admired its steady camerawork, sharp focus, and clear lighting, as well as its economy: At 38 seconds long, the film does not give the viewer the chance to tire of watching a cat paw the air.
These attributes put “Jazz Hands” in a class above many of the other submissions. Some were too long: Although the SAC called for videos two minutes or shorter, they received several that clocked in at 15 minutes. Some were too murky, their subjects darting in and out of focus. Some were merely uninteresting — you try watching a film of a stationary, purring tabby or an extreme close-up of a domestic shorthair eating wet food. Immediately disqualified were those that neglected to include any actual cats.
Over weeks of scrutinizing several offerings a day — four dozen in all — Nelson, a seasoned filmmaker and educator, has refined his understanding of cat video aesthetics. Cats, he says, are intrinsically cinematic. “They’re mysterious creatures. We live with them [Nelson does, anyway]. They’re fun, and we love them . . . but we can’t really get into their psyches. A cat holds its cards very close, and that makes them visually interesting.”
Of course, in 2013, the act of making a cat video has the potential to transcend the realm of mere diversion. The genre now has its own heavyweights, cats who’ve achieved the same degree of celebrity as stars in at least some entertainment realms. Maru, a rotund Scottish Fold who lives in Japan and favors cardboard boxes, has a YouTube channel with nearly 300,000 subscribers and more than 150 million page views — no small feat in an era where pop music star Rihanna was able to claim the top spot in the UK weekly album chart after selling fewer than 10,000 copies of her latest.
As a phenomenon, some observers say that the Internet cat video perhaps reached its popular and artistic zenith in August when the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis hosted its inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival and drew an audience of 10,000 and the attention of a dozen national news outlets, including The New York Times. Copy Cat Festival organizers credit the Walker event for inspiration.
“We were surprised, to say the least,” said Scott Stulen, the Walker Arts Center staffer in charge of the festival. “We had people spilling out into the streets.”
Stulen credits both the popularity of cats and the loneliness of social media for his museum’s startling success. “Someone can film a cat on their camera, uploaded on YouTube, and millions of people can see it . . . but [watching these videos] is a solitary activity. It’s something very different when you’re watching them with 10,000 people.”
But the communal nature of the festival had some unforeseen results. “Even though a lot of [these videos] have been seen many, many times, people kept yelling for their favorites. They wanted to see the hits, like ‘Keyboard Cat.’ ” This hunger for the familiar, Stulen said, made the event feel like a classic rock concert.
Whenever a grass-roots genre gets big enough to have its own stadium acts, corporate appropriation isn’t far behind. In November, Friskies cat food hosted an Internet cat-video awards ceremony; last month, Clorox-owned litter giant Fresh Step convened a cat-video screening at the Sundance Film Festival. “Keyboard Cat,’’ again at the vanguard, appeared in the first Internet cat-themed pistachios commercial in 2010.
“We already knew how popular cat content is. We’d have people submit their cat pictures to our Facebook page and get thousands of comments,’’ said David Kargas, a Fresh Step spokesman, explaining how his firm decided to embark on their Sundance project. “Cat videos have a lot of things going for them, but the one thing they’ve been missing is critical acclaim. We wanted to elevate cat videos to [the level of] art house films.”
Seattle-based cat director William Braden straddles a line between auteur and sellout. His black-and-white films of Henri, a diffident longhair tuxedo, gained a following for their protagonist’s miserablist worldview (“I am a depressive realist.’) and subtitled French narration, amusingly reminiscent of French new wave films of the late 1950s and ’60s. The Henri films have won the praises of Roger Ebert, as well as both the Walker’s coveted Golden Kitty Award and a lifetime achievement award from Friskies, a company for which Braden will soon make a series of sponsored videos. Random House imprint Ten Speed Press will publish “Henri, le Chat Noir: The Existential Musings of an Angst-Filled Cat” in April.
Braden has two words for any Somerville cat-video director who wakes up the day after the Copy Cat Festival to find his Fluffy is the next Internet sensation: social media. “I post something every day,” Braden says, explaining how he makes a living from a cat. In addition to his YouTube channel, Henri has a Twitter account, a Facebook feed, a website, and an Amazon author page. “Before Henri, I was just a video guy for hire,” Braden says. “I feel almost guilty having a cushy job like this.”
South Boston resident Coco Koh and her cat, Jacoby, tasted fame in early November when perplexed commuters snapped photos of the Abyssinian wearing a cowboy outfit while riding in a stroller on the Red Line at rush hour and a hashtag, #strollercat, was born. Local news outlets declared Stroller Cat an Internet sensation, and the Boston Herald put him on the front page, but the verdict was premature.
“The election came, and it got lost,” Koh said. She saw her blog readership dwindle from about 1,000 daily views down to about 150. She has given Copy Cat Festival organizers photos of Jacoby — a fraction of those compiled on her blog, The Daily Abyssinian — in hopes of reigniting his career. “My friends thought he should be a commercial, maybe a pistachio ad: ‘Stroller Cat does it on the go!’ I thought we should get him on ‘Letterman,’ ” she said. Another dream: plush toys. “Maru has one. . . . Why can’t Jacoby?”
Koh isn’t the only Bostonian who dreams of projecting images of her pet to a rapt audience of cat fanciers. The Somerville Arts Council received well over 100 e-mails containing up to 40 photos each. The number of hopeful participants likely has something to do with the overwhelming response to the festival: 300 tickets sold within the first 24 hours, warranting a second show.
Clea Simon, a Somerville author of a cat mystery series and a nonfiction title, “The Feline Mystique,” will take the stage to read from her recent novel, “Cats Can’t Shoot.” She’s not at all surprised by her community’s enthusiasm. “People interact with dogs as they do with children, but having a cat is like having an interesting adult roommate from another culture — they’re sort of independent, and they just can’t communicate,” she said. “The festival is like our exchange program.” And besides, she said, referring to the city’s makeover plans for itself: “Somerville is the city of the future, so it makes sense that we acknowledge our feline overlords.”
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia