Henri le Chat: à la Mode Retro

Curator's Note

Will Braden's, Henri 2, Paw de Deux (2012), last's year's winner at the Walker Arts Center's Cat Video Film Festival, mixes a cat’s self-project aura of importance with the pop cache of Internet cat video, resulting in an extremely humorous video about an black francophone Internet cat named Henri, a.k.a. the Chat Noir, who experiences undying existential ennui.

Henri 2 is now one of several episodes in the Chat Noir series, all of which play on similar themes (his boredom, loneliness, and alienation in the face of everything from birds, fellow felines, to cheeseburgers). Henri 2 has become one of the most “liked” and “watched” videos on YouTube, because I cannot theorize the entire phenomenon of Internet cat videos here, I want to use this video to raise a question for further discussion.

Braden’s use of subtitles (common to Internet cat memes), voice-overs, black-and-white photography, sentimentalized piano, and existential motifs together allude to Europe in the postwar era, and auteur cinema in particular (Fellini, Antonioni, Godard). While it is comic to consider Henri as an auteur (a theme he capitalizes on in later episodes), is it not also a bit disturbing that today it is not an acute existential angst, but rather, boredom and ennui––in the face of ongoing crisis, disaster, catastrophe, and environmental destruction––that colors our art and cultural aesthetics? Does the video’s success ride on a longing and nostalgia for a time when people experienced trauma and crisis simply, and even, dare I says, elegantly? In other words: authenticity, black as it was, is no longer an option in today’s remix culture of hybrid hyperspeed.

Today the once radical and political jump cuts of the new wave and the political aesthetic they introduced saturates everything from Internet banner ads to public spaces. The more eyeballs, hits, clicks, and likes, the more dollars. Surely this is a tragedy of our times, somehow captured, and diffused in the Henri episodes (or the facts that subsequent episodes begin with embedded advertisements, like “Produced in Association with Friskies” cat food). Granted artists need to eat, is it also not also the “most terrifying news,” of our times, as Deleuze put it in 1991, that “businesses [now] have souls”?  


Perhaps the ennui of Henri represents the shadow side of the angst and anxiety life today seems to call forth-- a shadow that works as a haven when one's energy to take a stand is overwhelmed or exhausted by the seemingly endless stream of intolerance, anger, and commodification? I must admit to being charmed by the original two episodes of Henri. They captured the "feel" of catness (somehow I can't imagine a dog being able to channel the same sort of existential thought). Based on your post, I went out to view the 4-part series of Friskies' Henri episodes. To my dismay, they are not just episodes with embedded advertisements, but the episodes themselves are nothing but full-length ads for Friskies -- Friskies is presented as the answer to Henri's ennui. So commodification has overtaken a once edgy and interesting comment on modern life and left me with an increased experience of ennui. How odd that I find my reaction is one of feeling betrayed and thus feeling yet another push toward the ennui that first characterized Henri. I suspect this wasn't the intent of this film maker (nor of that other once-humorous-now-frustrating commentator on the darker side of life, GrumpyCat, who was also Friskie-ized), but it seems the soul has been sold out yet again.

Yes, "Friskies is presented as the answer to Henri’s ennui" which may seem like "betrayal" as you say, though it is also very much business as usual today. Perhaps this is the real horror...

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