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 — both viral and not quite — dramatic readings of cat limericks and stories, a photo montage of local cats, and readings from Somerville authors with notable books about cats, including festival emcee Czekaj, author of the picture book “Cat Secrets.”
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.Continued...