I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but here it goes: I saw a film about cat celebrities, and I liked it.
Lil Bub and Friendz is a Vice-produced documentary premiering at the 2013 TriBeCa Film Festival in New York City on Thursday. Its subject is unique, to say the least: Lil Bub is a house cat riddled with deformities, from misshapen leg bones to a perpetual toothless overbite that makes drool prevention impossible. Her tongue hangs out. Her bug-eyes engulf her forehead like she is something that escaped from a Looney Tunes short, giving her a look of unwavering surprise.
In other words, she’s adorable. And she’s unbelievably famous.
Lil Bub is part of a phenomenon unique to this cultural epoch, that of the internet cat celebrity. Her owner, Mike Bridavsky, stumbled into fame unwittingly, posting photos of his bizarre-looking feline companion online (just because) and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback. Compliments and professions of love for Bub poured in. One comment read (and I’m paraphrasing): “Lil Bub is my reason for living.”
Bridavsky and Bub have since appeared on morning television and generated thousands of dollars in revenue online. The pair is even shown donating money to a big cat sanctuary in Indiana (where apparently breeding lions and tigers then abandoning them when they get too big is a thing).
But theirs is far from the only such story. Throughout the film, we’re treated to interviews with numerous people made famous through cats: Christopher Torres, for example, whose “Nyan Cat” video went viral on YouTube in 2011. He has since made a serviceable living from corresponding merchandise: “This is my full-time job now,” he says.
(If you’re unfamiliar with “Nyan Cat,” check it out here. It’s every bit as weird as it sounds.)
Cheezburger Network CEO (they have a CEO!) Ben Huh also makes an appearance, in addition to a motley crew of fans and superfans (one of whom unabashedly claims he can “relate to serial killers”). Though Lil Bub and Bridavsky provide a narrative thread, the film is equally concerned with the culture as a whole.
Photo Credit: Vice Media
Which inevitably begs the question: why? Why are cats such an incredibly popular internet staple? Why is there such thing as the Internet Cat Video Festival (born in Minneapolis, but coming to Brooklyn this summer!)?
Feline sociologist (yes, that’s a thing too) Jeffrey Bussolini ventures that this culture is a way of forming community among cat owners. Where dog lovers have physical spaces in which to share their enthusiasms, such as dog parks, cat lovers don’t have the same luxury. So they’ve made these online spaces, which enable them to share and communicate their passion to a broader, even global, audience.
While Lil Bub and Friendz is informative and skillfully made (by co-directors Juliette Eisner and Andy Capper), it also hints at deeper questions about the nature of fame. Some cultural critics have suggested that celebrity culture is about deification, and perceiving celebrities as vessels for us to fill with our own dreams and disappointments. In other words, they are what we wish we were. But how does this change when the celebrity is a cat?
The answer seems to have more to do with developing community and shared experience than anything else. And ultimately, that’s what this film is all about.