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Please Pardon the Paws in Today's Proceedings

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Lots of people who are friends and family have cats that they adore. Unfortunately, I'm allergic to cats and must keep them at a safe distance. Sometimes that means explaining to someone that I'm not trying to hurt their pet's feelings, I simply don't feel like taking a trip to the Emergency Room.

Just because I can still remember that bright summer day when, as a teenager, I got checked out by an Emergency Room physician for an attack of conjunctivitis that had some green pus coming out of my left eye does not mean that I equate pus with Pussy Galore. Cats visit me on a regular basis all through the day -- on Facebook, on YouTube, in syndicated comic strips like Darby Conley's brilliant Get Fuzzy (Bucky Katt) and Jim Davis's lasagna-craving cat, Garfield.

All kinds of cats pepper world literature, from the Cheshire cat that would tease Alice while perched on a tree branch to Dr. Seuss's famous Cat in a Hat. Although many people have a soft spot for Felix the Cat, one of my all-time favorites is Bill the Cat, from Berkeley Breathed's brilliant Bloom County.

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Bill the Cat

Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats (as do lots of gay men). Without doubt, there are plenty of cats to be found in the arts.

Cats are often depicted as evil or malicious by nature.

Cats have also been brought to life in a nonsense poem by Edward Lear and a collection of poems by T. S. Eliot entitled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.

Sometimes, a song about a cat can become a part of the cultural landscape.

Occasionally, a long-lost gem can surface on YouTube. Here's a clip from 1971's Shinbone Alley (an animated musical based on Archy and Mehitabel) with Eddie Bracken as Archy, Carol Channing as Mehitabel, and John Carradine as Tyrone T. Tattersall.

Bottom line? There are Aristocats.......

......hedonistic, X-rated cats....

......and corrupt, power-hungry corporate fat cats.

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* * * * * * * * * *

There's a new cat in town and it took only a few minutes for him to find his way into my heart. While some pet owners like to say that dogs have masters and cats have staff, this cat has lots and lots of attitude.

The product of Joann Sfar's fertile imagination, The Rabbi's Cat began as a series of graphic novels in France (a two-volume set is available on Amazon.com). The full-length animated adaptation of Sfar's graphic novel is at once hilarious, educational, provocative, and disarming. With gorgeous cinematography by Jerome Brezilion and original music by Olivier Daviaud performed by the Amsterdam Klezmer Band, much of this film might be wasted on children (it doesn't hesitate to tackle such difficult issues as slavery, racism, colonialism, and antisemitism).

Set in Algiers in the 1920s, Sfar's story includes the following characters:

  • The insecure Rabbi Sfar who, in order to hold on to his position, must take a written exam in French.
  • His beautiful daughter, Zlabya, who seems to love her cat more than her father.
  • Zlabya's hairless cat who, after killing and eating the rabbi's parrot, proves to be multilingual and is able to communicate with humans in French and Russian.

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Zlabya and her pet cat

  • The rabbi's cousin (Malka of the Lions),who has come to visit from another part of Africa.
  • A handsome young painter who fled his village in Russia after witnessing a pogrom (and is now in search of his fantasy version of a Jerusalem populated with black Jews).
  • A rich, crazy old Russian aristocrat who was once one of the Tsar's soldiers.

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Poster art for The Rabbi's Cat

While many cats like to be pampered and stroked until they purr with contentment, the rabbi's cat has different goals. For one thing, he wants a bar mitzvah! He's also pretty talented at debating monotheism versus polytheism, punching holes in Creationism, and waxing philosophical. Unfortunately, once he gains the power to speak to humans, he also starts having some pretty horrible dreams.

What could be more fun than a road trip with a rabbi, a sheikh, giraffes, crocodiles, Muslims, scorpions, and a group of elephants taking a bath?

In the following (often hilarious) 30-minute clip of a Q&A session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Sfar discusses how he graduated from working as a comic book artist to making live action films (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) and, with the help of his friend, Antoine Delesvaux, tackling his first full-length animation feature.

This hand-drawn film possesses a rare beauty which adds a layer of fantasy to Northern Africa while teasing Jews, Russians, Muslims, and pretty much the entire animal kingdom. A magnificent piece of art with a rare level of intellect and humor, it most definitely should not be missed. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape