MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — While his fellow film school students dreamed of being the next Scorsese, Will Braden’s artistic vision took a furry twist: "I wanted to pretend to be a depressed French cat online."
Six years later, the Seattle man has parlayed that dream into a series of videos starring an elegant tuxedo puss named Henri, booming merch sales and a book deal with Random House. Making cat videos is now Braden’s full-time job.
And unlike those budding Scorseses in film school, Braden didn’t have to wait long for his Oscar: on Thursday night, in front of more than 10,000 fans at the first Internet Cat Video Film Festival, the filmmaker accepted the Golden Kitty People’s Choice Award for his two-minute opus Henri 2: Paw de Deux.
"I had no idea this was going to be so huge," Braden said, clutching his kitty statuette. "This is kind of a litmus test for a lot of cat stuff… there is a virtual community to it, but if you like it enough to share it, you bring it into the real world."
So it was, on the rolling hill beside Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, as all those people splayed out under the remains of a scorching day to watch two hours of cat videos together. There were 79 videos to see: short cat videos and long cat videos, cat videos set to music and animated cats.
There were famous favourites — Keyboard Cat, rest its soul, gamely tickling plastic ivories — and cutting-edge creations.
In the swollen crowd, fans showed off cat T-shirts and cat tattoos; they handed out business cards for their own cats. Even a few famous felines came out: on the crest of the hill, a teensy cat with a lolling tongue flopped on the grass while hundreds of fans circled her, camera-phones clicking. "Is that Lil Bub?" one woman squealed.
Indeed it was: New York-based Vice Magazine sponsored the celebrikitty to travel to the festival from Indiana. "She’s just special," owner Mike Bridavsky said, as he cuddled Bub for another marathon photoop. "I get emails every day saying she’s changed people’s lives. She’s raising money for charity. As long as I can maintain a positive message, we’ll keep doing it."
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when cats became the common language of the Internet, the oblivious furry hubs that so much online funny hinges on. Katie Hill isn’t sure either: "I’m not a sociologist," the Walker Center program associate demurred.
But Hill knew that she liked cat videos.
And so, as part of the Walker’s outdoor Open Field experimental art program, she decided to throw a cat video film festival.
The idea was whimsical, but carried a real cultural question: what happens when we turn off our computer screens, and consume an online phenomenon together?
At first, Hill thought the festival might draw hundreds; she never guessed it would bring 10,000 to the field, so many that fans spilled over the street on nearby Vineland Road. But news of the festival went viral, splashed on everything from the Huffington Post to the New York Times. Indeed, at 1 a.m. on Thursday morning, Hill was on the phone doing an interview with British BBC.
"It’s surreal for me," she said, dressed in a T-shirt wearing the festival’s cute clapboard-cat logo. "I guess I hit a vein, somewhat unintentionally. It’s kind of amazing. And I think it raises a lot of really interesting critical questions, to have such a lighthearted program."
From the pop-up bar to the far edge of the field, those questions echoed: why cats?
And why cat videos? It’s because cats are more independent, some fans said; there’s a mystery to them, and to the funny things they do. "It’s sort of inexplicable, which is maybe what’s enticing about it," mused Kate Graham, 29, who came to the festival with her fellow "big cat fan" mom.
Near the top of the hill, 22-year-old Christine Taffe was already over the moon at having met Lil Bub: "She’s the reason I had such an unproductive day at work," she said with a giggle, and mused over the question of why cats like Bub are so entrancing. "The Internet brings a lot of great things into our lives. One of them is enabling us to see the beauty of the everyday."
"Besides," she added, settling on a blanket to watch the videos roll, "cats are just weird."
To see more of the videos, search for #catvidfest on YouTube.