Cat and Mouse

Amy Taubin on Cat Scratch Fever

Lisa Duva, Cat Scratch Fever, 2011, DVCPro HD, color, 73 minutes. Ashley and Lisa (Kara Elverson and Starsha Gill).

SOMEWHERE IN AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE—in some confusingly named folder buried in “My Documents” or in the Cloud (if only I had turned on iCloud Backup)—is a review of Lisa Duva’s Cat Scratch Fever (2011). I am intermittently convinced that I wrote this review immediately after I saw a DVD of the movie a few months ago, that I will find it if I search hard enough, and that finding it would be wildly preferable to focusing on the daunting task of re-creating it, as I am now trying to do. This elusive review begins (I refer to it in the present tense because it exists, always has existed, and always will exist) with the best lede I’ve ever written, in that it fully captures the euphoria I felt throughout Duva’s heady, funny, scary, endearingly scruffy first feature.

As you already may have guessed, Cat Scratch Fever proposes a “many worlds” interpretation of the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, using the laptop as a portal. If you are not familiar with the 1935 absurdist critique of a central theory of Quantum physics, you will now be able to spend many pleasurable hours Googling it and following links that, among other things, will allow you to understand Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) as never before. Also Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) and Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), two of Duva’s direct inspirations. Cat Scratch Fever is Primer with, about, and for girls, er . . . young women. Its depiction of female friendship puts a new spin on its addiction/time-travel/coming-of-age narrative. Lisa (Starsha Gill) and Ashley (Kara Elverson) love each other as deeply as Thelma and Louise did, making Duva’s movie the anti-Girls, to invoke the HBO series which is about how cool it is to be in love with your own imperfections.

Ashley is organized, controlled, tall, slim, and Caucasian. She works as a researcher in Alan Lomax’s folk music archives, a resource that Duva uses in the movie’s lively sound track and world-travel montages. Lisa is impulsive, messy, short, buxom, and African-American. She is currently unemployed and spends most of her time in the tiny Brooklyn apartment the two share, doing job searches and various online procrastination rituals. One morning, just after the third occupant of the apartment, a nondescript tiger cat untroubled by identity issues, has spilled cornflakes on a corner of the keyboard (what turns out to be the narrative’s inciting event), Lisa is startled to see on the screen a close-up of the back of her head, as if a webcam were mounted behind her—except that there is no webcam there. When Lisa tells Ashley that she has tapped into another dimension, Ashley laughs it off as a well-known Internet hoax, including the supposed “MIT Institute of Advanced Dimensionality” experiments, which doesn’t stop her from pursuing an audio variant of Lisa’s discovery by playing records backwards at the wrong speed at work. (Remember “Paul is dead”? That’s how antique the home-media aspect of this quest is.) Searching side by side, glued to their personal screens, they find “Dimension Seeker,” a site that promises immersive trips through multiple dimensions. It comes with a warning label about side effects, which the two ignore. “You always just hit ‘Agree,’ ” says the incautious Lisa. Immediately they are rewarded with a domestic scene just seconds out of sync with their “base reality.” But as their addiction to “dimensions” takes over, the on-screen realities become projections of desires and fears they’ve barely articulated. Elation spirals into desperation and paranoia. Lisa’s abandonment issues become overwhelming, as does her desire to have a child. Ashley embarks on a secret affair with the guy who lives next door with his girlfriend, but soon the relationship falls apart, and her ambivalence about sex turns to pure negativity. The emotions generated in these adventures via avatars invade their supposed actual lives, which disintegrate in familiar junky fashion. Asked by a concerned friend if they’ve showered recently, Ashley responds with incontrovertible logic: “We watched ourselves showering.” It’s the movie’s funniest moment and also the darkest.

Trailer for Cat Scratch Fever.

Made on a miniscule budget with production taking place sporadically over two years, Cat Scratch Fever employs almost no special effects. Duva differentiates between base and alt spheres of reality by shooting the latter off a computer screen, thus emphasizing their borderline abstract qualities. But as Lisa and Ashley become increasingly unclear about where they are, it becomes harder for us, partly because of the ingenious, off-kilter editing, to keep our bearings as well. Gill and Elverson grow stronger as actors as the movie progresses, but what they bring to every moment is a sense of intimacy. The two have been close friends since their days at Sarah Lawrence, where Duva was also a student. What made me interested in Cat Scratch Fever when I saw a trailer online was that I too am a cat person, and I too graduated from Sarah Lawrence, albeit nearly fifty years before Duva. We did not have access to cyberspace in 1960, but the sense of our minds being on fire as we pursued the intersections of multiple worlds, abstract and concrete, is identical. Which is to say—attention alumni fundraisers—Sarah Lawrence is, always has been, always will be, as alive and dead as Schrödinger’s cat. Maybe I’ll send a check in Duva’s honor this year.

Cat Scratch Fever screens at Videology in Brooklyn on Tuesday, November 27 and at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens on Sunday, December 2.