Tribeca Film Festival: Lil Bub & Friendz – Must love cats…

Must love cats with celebrity status and an agent

What’s up with the crazy cat people and their need to post funny pictures of their cats on the internet? Ok, it’s true; I’m a dog kind of guy! Cats are not my first choice for a pet. I’ve owned a cat or two in the past, but we don’t mix well—they constantly beg to eat, hack up hairballs, spend most of their time sleeping, and well, I require more attention than they are willing to offer.  So, it’s odd that one of the first films I saw at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was a documentary about, of all things, cats, cats gone viral—internet viral—and the people who love them, and a particularly interesting über-cute kitty-cat called Lil Bub.  Why would this dog lover go see a film filled with furry kitty memes?  Dare I say, curiosity?  It’s the same curiosity that leads me to open those annoying emails sent by my crazy cat-loving friends. The ones filled with a collection of painfully cute cats doing anthropomorphic things like watching TV, wearing handcrafted bonnets, or getting their adorable little cat heads stuck in an empty fast-food bag, or sleeping, oh so preciously—it’s the stuff of CRAZY cat people!  
Lil Bub & Friendz takes viewers inside the world of today’s popular viral YouTube videos and cat memes and explores the world of “cat people” who exploit like stage mothers and “cat people” who consume internet cat culture.

This feline flick is replete with cat memes such as Nyan Cat, an annoying cartoon cat with the body of a Pop-Tart, created in bad early ‘80s-like computer animation (think space invaders, if you’re old enough), that flies through space accompanied by a Japanese pop song where the only lyric is “Meow”, repeated at a crack-like rate with the intensity of a four-year old on a Halloween candy sugar high. Nyan Cat’s video has racked up over 95 million YouTube hits. Then there’s Keyboard Cat, with over 30 million hits on YouTube. He plays an electric piano; rather, he is manipulated by his owner to play the keyboard for him, as he looks on, in an adorable, yet typically uninterested cat manner that momentarily brings Stevie Wonder to mind. And then there’s Grumpy Cat, a unique specimen with a face that was born to be in a photograph with such captions that read, “I had fun once, it was terrible.”  Ok, Grumpy Cat got me. One look at Grumpy and you understand his viral popularity. I could imagine myself dressing him up as Miss Havisham and photographing him in front of a dusty, old, uneaten wedding cake to which I would add the caption: “I was happy for twenty minutes, until I was left at the altar.”  There’s a world of possibilities and that’s why he’s a star.  Yes, Grumpy has star power, he has that inexplicable it factor. But Grumpy Cat is not the star of this flick; he’s merely one of the “Friendz,” the film’s title refers to. The star of this film is a bulbous eyed, deformed, stubby-legged, perma-kitten (kitten-like forever), with an extra toe on each foot. Lil Bub is “the most famous cat on the internet.” She is unquestionably, yet oddly, cute, especially with her wide-eyed stare and ever-present, hanging tongue (her lower jaw is shorter than her upper jaw and her teeth never grew in)—I mean, if this were a girl from the hills of southern Indiana, the community would’ve put her down immediately, and no one would suffer an instant of guilt. But, Lil Bub is not human; she’s tiny, sweet and covered in fur.

Lil Bub & Friendz playfully shows the star power that these cats possess. Cat lovers stop on the street and gasp in awe at the sight of Grumpy Cat, who with his owner Tabatha Bundesen, were in New York City doing PR and making an appearance on the Today Show.  Fans gather around Lil Bub as she appears at the first ever Internet Cat Video Film Festival in Minneapolis. That’s how this unique animal documentary started, as co-directors Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner, who were working on a short documentary on internet memes, went to Minneapolis to cover the first ever cat video film festival. “We invited Bub to join as our token cat celebrity for the shoot. But upon meeting her and after seeing how many people came out for the festival, we realized that we could make something much bigger,” Eisner explains. She appears in the film as she meets Lil Bub for the first time. When confronted with Bub’s overwhelming adorableness, she is thrown into a cuteness-induced euphoria attack.  Her reaction to Lil Bub’s cute appearance is sincere and tangible. Like Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub also has that star power.  From that day on, their little documentary about a bizarre cat film festival became a big documentary about Lil Bub and the world of cat memes.
Eisner began working as a production intern at VICE.COM (an online global media internet channel) gathering the weird news stories from around the world, which more than likely exposed her to a few interesting cat memes. For those who don’t know what a meme is, aptly describes it as “an image, video, phrase or simply an idea that spreads from one person to another seemingly for no logical reason at all”. Cat fans on the street are eager to pet, touch and thereby confirm the reality of their favored Lil Bub. We see fans of Nyan buy Nyan souvenirs off of the Internet or in a pop-up store in Manhattan. In fact, souvenirs are available for many of the cat memes. Fans can also buy Lil Bub T-shirts, cups, calendars and stickers adorned with her face. The film is never dull and successfully steers clear of the one-note joke of weird cat people and WTF-memes. Throughout the film, Capper and Eisner unearth new layers of the internet cat craze as they introduce the cast of popular cats, the fans, and even the first ever meme-manager, Ben Lashes, who manages Nyan Cat, Keyboard Cat, Grumpy Cat, and The Ginger who has a Soul (yes, even he has a manager).  But the heart of this film is the relationship between Lil Bub and her owner and caregiver Mike Bridavsky.  Capper and Eisner are able to form a simple narrative that focuses on Bub’s early days of surviving alone in a shed in Bloomington, Indiana to her unexpected rise to internet fame, fame that helped save her owner, Bridavsky, from financial ruin. At the same time, Bub seems to keep him from finding a “lady friend”. 
With surreal scenes that playfully imply that Lil Bub is a creature from another world, the film engages its audience in a trip that is more than a whimsical look at the crazy cat people. By the end of the film, I found myself concerned about the health of Lil Bub and her longevity.  The film only briefly touches on Lil Bub’s weak health, but just enough to give the viewers a dose of life’s transient reality: man’s cute, beloved little creatures don’t live forever. The directors successfully avoid turning this into an Old Yeller tale of contrived tears but rather a story of people who are different from most of us, but are just as human the rest of us.
And that’s how curiosity killed my crazy cat people cynicism. Well, not completely. Eisner alluded to the possibility of a future documentary, “Grumpy Cat Strikes Back!” We can all hope for a Grumpy sequel. If  she’s correct when she says, “cats are what people like to look at on the Internet,” then Eisner and Friendz may have the first of many lives ahead of them as we may be entering an era of the cat.

—John David West

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