The Strange Little Cat: a film so original it has to teach you how to watch it 

What's New, Pussycat?

What's New, Pussycat?

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that's so original in conception that it has to teach you how to watch it as it goes along. The Strange Little Cat — which began its life, incredibly, as a sort of class project, devised for a seminar being run by acclaimed (and now retired) Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr — might as well have been titled The Strange Little Film, as it runs a scant 72 minutes and resembles nothing most viewers will have ever seen before. This German family drama isn't weird, however — at least not in the way that, say, David Lynch's Eraserhead is weird. There's no surreal imagery, no outré flights of fancy, no industrial thrum. Director Ramon Zürcher has instead taken the units of a fairly ordinary movie and assembled them in an unusual way, creating a uniquely beguiling cinematic rhythm. It feels as if he's reinventing the medium from the ground up, and if he hasn't yet wholly succeeded, that's no reason not to be excited.

Describing this film is a tricky proposition, because nothing much happens in a traditional narrative sense. It's set mostly in a single cramped apartment (though there are occasional flashbacks to other locations), as an extended family engages in scenes of banal domesticity. Mom (Jenny Schily) cooks breakfast, keeping one eye on her youngest daughter, Clara (Mia Kasalo), who's prone to screaming fits. Her teenage daughter, Karin (Anjorka Strechel), who's home for the weekend, hangs out on the periphery of shots, making wry observations and trying to avoid helping with the housework. The family's washing machine is broken, and a neighbor has stopped by to help fix it, serving as another pair of legs for folks to trip over. (Physical negotiations are paramount here.) There is indeed a cat, too, though it's only as mysterious as the average feline and seems to regard human beings as an endless source of benign puzzlement.

Or maybe it's just marveling at the filmmaking. Zürcher takes this innocuous raw material and fashions a new way of seeing, using asymmetrical compositions, aural misdirection, unexpected juxtapositions, and an emphasis on inanimate objects. The obvious point of comparison — especially given the way that some of these devices build into running gags — is the great French director Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot's Holiday, Play Time). Tati orchestrated events from a godlike distance, however, letting his routines play out in real time, whereas Zürcher takes a much more claustrophobic and modular approach. Every cut from one shot to another in The Strange Little Cat provides a fresh new perspective; watching the film is a constant process of reorienting oneself, even as information gradually accumulates to form a bigger picture. That's how movies generally work, but it's rarely (if ever) been achieved at such a micro-level.

In some ways, The Strange Little Cat is more of an exercise than a finished product. The mother is deeply melancholy throughout for no apparent reason, for example, and it feels as if that element is a blueprint for emotional content to be added later. All the same, this is a remarkable achievement, especially considering its humble origin. Should more movies eventually emerge from Tarr's seminar, look out.

The Strange Little Cat screens 7 p.m. Thursday, June 19, at Third Man Records as part of The Light and Sound Machine series, co-sponsored by The Belcourt. Preceding the film are two works by Nashville video artist Mika Agari, "Security Space" and "Walmart," which examine the impersonality of commercial space and the invasiveness of surveillance culture. Tickets are $10.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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