Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Cat got your tongue

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The Diary of Anne Frank

On Friday, I spent most of the morning trying to remember a cat. I wanted to write a blog post about animals in film, and I vaguely recalled an anecdote about a movie scene involving a cat that got its head caught in something. A box? A can? A mailing tube? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that the sequence involved a single uninterrupted shot of a cat squeezing its head into and out of a tight space, and given the notorious difficulty of training cats to do anything on camera, it was all but impossible to figure out how it was done. But I couldn’t remember anything else. It couldn’t have been just a cute scene; it had to be tied into the plot, so there had to be an element of danger or suspense. Maybe there was a bomb in the box? Or it took place during a heist where the smallest sound would give the thief away? I tried searching for every combination I could imagine of the words “cat,” “head,” and “stuck,” and I even ended up studying a list of famous movie cats. No dice. And although I knew that the story, whatever it was, would only end up being a tiny part of the post I was writing, it seemed crucial to track it down, or it would bug me forever.

Yet there was something about that prolonged inventory of my mental archives that was oddly satisfying. These days, we’re used to having instant access to all human knowledge, as long as we know the right search terms, to the point where we’re likely to forget how profoundly strange it all is. As recently as a decade ago, when I wrote my senior thesis, the idea of being able to search the text of printed books to track down every last mention of a subject was unthinkable. Scholars had to either absorb a huge body of material or trust to indexes and luck. I spent hours browsing at random in the stacks at the Smyth Classical Library, and I vividly remember my advisor’s response when I came up with an obscure passage in Statius that gave me the exact bit of evidence my argument needed: “How did you find this?” I wasn’t entirely sure then, and I certainly don’t remember now. These days, it wouldn’t be impressive at all: it’s just a matter of typing in the right keywords. But there’s a loss here, too, and it has less to do with the moment of discovery than with the long process of preparation, consolidation, and patience that made it possible.

The Diary of Anne Frank

When it came to my cat story, I ended up reliving a condensed version of what like was like before Google, complete with a few false breakthroughs. (At one point, I exclaimed aloud: “Rififi!” But nope, that wasn’t it.) Ultimately, I finally remembered where I’d read the anecdote, and it came to me, appropriately enough, as I was doing the dishes: it was in David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla, a book I read years ago and no longer own. In case you didn’t click through last week, here’s Mamet’s account of the scene, which occurs in George Stevens’s film of The Diary of Anne Frank:

[Otto] Frank retreats to the attic and all wait breathlessly, while the Nazis scout the house below. Now comes the cat. She pads along a kitchen ledge in the hidden attic, she puts her head into a funnel resting on the ledge, she pushes the funnel toward the edge. Now everyone in the world holds his or her breath. Now the funnel goes over the ledge. But wait, the cat’s head is still stuck in the funnel.

Should the funnel drop off, the Nazis will hear, and discover the hidden attic and kill all the inhabitants. But continue to wait—the cat now pulls its head, the funnel still on it, back onto the ledge, and now draws its head off. What a great sequence. But how did they do it?

Mamet goes through a bunch of possibilities—they filled the funnel with tuna fish and some glue, or used monofilament line, or magnets, or shot the scene backwards—only to conclude that none of his solutions make any sense. At last, he calls up George Stevens, Jr., who gives him the answer: the director “just turned on the cameras and shot an unbelievable amount of film, waiting for some cat to do something ‘uncatlike.'” It’s a great story. But it’s only interesting after you’ve followed Mamet through all his wrong turns: it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he had called up the director’s son at the start. And I feel the same way about my own little search. I misremembered almost everything. I certainly wasn’t thinking of a funnel, or Anne Frank, and when I finally got it, it was based on a hunch that the source was probably Mamet, to whom I owe many of my favorite stories about the movies. But the search was worth it in itself. It reminded me of Marlon Brando’s cat in The Godfather, and of the cat in Alien, and many others, and it gave me an excuse to stare at my library shelves and rack my brain for a while. And I liked it. Because as nice as it can be to have access to a universe of information, it’s good to be reminded that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2015 at 9:34 am

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