The Internet’s hardcore feline obsession may seem harmless, but is there something darker at play behind the millions of memes and GIFs it generates, or the eager crowds who gather to meet online animal celebrities like Grumpy Cat (R.I.P.)? In her short film Call of Cuteness, artist and composer Brenda Lien uses stunning abstract rotoscope animation to probe this question, creating a beautifully menacing exploration of the ways in which we exploit animals in pursuit of viral entertainment. Paired on the Criterion Channel with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s equally disturbing head trip House, Lien’s film follows a possessed cat who haunts a group of high school girls in a deserted country home. Recently I exchanged some e-mails with Lien about her practice and how she employs multimedia techniques to critique our culture of consumerism and waste. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you learn your craft?
I have been studying art for seven years and am now finally graduating. In that time I have worked with various formats and styles: live action and animation, narrative and experimental, cinematic films made to be screened in movie theaters and video art for installations in a gallery context. I also make music, mostly for films. My art school—University of Art and Design in Offenbach, Germany—gives students lots of space to experiment and evolve, and that has been great for me.
Can you tell me more about what inspired the project?
I would recommend watching the film first, before reading my “explanation.” Cute animal content has become one of the most popular things on the web—it is an integral part of people’s daily Internet experience. Call of Cuteness started out with the idea that we are “feeding” off the cats’ cuteness without thinking about their well-being. How does the animal really feel when it is jammed into a Halloween costume?
The film questions this principle of personal pleasure at the cost of others within the context of a cat’s life and basically tells the story of being a commodity: the kitten is constantly filmed, controlled, and staged for consumption from the moment it’s born. As soon as it has reproduced, the cat reaches its “expiration date” and gets thrown into the ocean, which is polluted with all this other cultural “waste.”
The protagonists in Call of Cuteness experience a lot of violence, and many viewers have gotten pretty upset seeing those cats suffer. My answer to that is: animals and people all over the world experience this type of violence daily—and the luxury of first-world privileged people usually has a direct relation to it, and even depends on it. The sad lives of livestock or sweatshop workers do not seem to have the same unsettling effect on people as this sad depiction of a cat does. And this is symptomatic of many things that are going wrong in our consumerist economy and culture.
What was the intention behind the title?
Call of Cuteness is the second film in a trilogy that also includes Call of Beauty and Call of Comfort. The trilogy examines why certain videos are so popular online, what effect they might have on our society, and what our high consumption of them tells us about our culture. I think you can learn a lot about a society by looking at its cultural products—and YouTube videos are a part of that. They’ve become the new television (at least for the younger generations and the ones to follow), so it’s important to treat them as the mass medium they have become.
The first film takes a close look at beauty YouTubers, unrealistic and harmful beauty standards, and their effects on female-presenting people. The title referenced the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, framing the “female duty to be beautiful” as a toxic gender role like the aggressive male archetype portrayed in the game. When I made that film a trilogy was not planned yet, but after finishing it I wanted to further explore those types of power dynamics. To me the title Call of Cuteness represents a first-world person’s demand for the next “sugar shot,” the next new luxurious thing to consume.
Call of Cuteness is beautiful and intricate but also quite disturbing and grotesque. What were some of the animation techniques you used and the visual effects that you wanted to create?
I made Call of Cuteness with a hand-drawn rotoscoping technique on paper. It allowed me to reference existing cat memes while still having an abstracting effect. I have used this technique in several projects and love its hybrid nature, which is somewhere between live action and animation film.
You also compose the music for your films. How did you go about creating the music and the soundscape for Call of Cuteness?
I compose my soundtracks while editing, and sometimes even while writing the script. It is a pretty long back-and-forth process, but I enjoy it very much. To me, music is not just a means to create certain emotions, it’s also another storytelling element, just like cinematography or set design. The first part of Call of Cuteness has a very distorted, industrial-sounding beat, which was supposed to frame the cat as if it were in a factory. That beat seems to beat up the cat on an auditory level while it is also literally being beaten up on a visual level. The film ends with a choir, without any beat, which represents the freedom the cat finally experiences in the depths of the ocean. As soon as it’s considered useless, no one gives a shit.