I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Is it possible that Illumination Entertainment named themselves in full cognition that a clip of a cat discovering a roast chicken in their 2016 film The Secret Life of Pets would shed light on the darkest corners of my psyche?
The movie shows us a day in the life of a dog named Max (Louis C.K.) and his domesticated animal friends, who get up to a whole lot of mischief the moment their owners leave. Is The Secret Life of Pets good? No. In fact, Illumination’s (best known for the Despicable Me and Minions) entire brand premise is “Yes, Pixar tries harder and makes better films than we do but we make tons of money anyway.” But is The Secret Life of Pets a miraculous psychoanalytic tool? IT IS FOR ME.
Background: We are introduced to Chloe, a very fat, poorly behaved cat (Lake Bell). We have just seen Chloe push her boring dish of cat chow aside and waddle off in search of more captivating nourishment.
“My scene” (which is both in the movie and used in promos, because it’s so good) begins as Chloe opens the refrigerator door. She is initially uninspired at the sight of eggs and apple juice. Then she spots the chicken. It is golden, glistening, and waiting for her. Her face bursts into a grin at once crazed and innocent. She licks her lips. But no sooner has her tongue completed a rotation of her mouth than she begins to frown and shake her head, forcing herself to say no. She casts a sour glance away from the chicken, utterly dejected. But — not unlike Lot’s wife — Chloe looks back. She is still miserable, but there’s tiniest sliver of hope in it. Couldn’t she — maybe? She just wants it so bad — but no. She can’t. She groans, lets her paws slip from the shelf, and shuts the door.
The first time I saw this clip, I gasped. I watched it again, just to make sure, then again. By the fourth time, I was sure that I was not mistaken. This cat’s relationship to roast chicken was a mirror of my relationship to all desire: Intense, exuberant, childish longing; the briefest bloom of expectant happiness; dueling sensations of being angry at myself and sad for myself that fulfillment will never be mine, accompanied (crucially) by shame that I allowed myself to enjoy a moment of delusion that it could be. Finally, the defeated shutting of the door and the horrible, inevitable conclusion: “Why do I bother wanting things in the first place?”
I watch this clip at least once a week, with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s cathartic to see this adorable, not-real cat play out my un-adorable, real, torturous thought process. It’s humbling to realize that the narratives embedded in my emotional core, which can seem so indecipherable, can in fact be quickly summarized by a fat cat who just wants to eat a whole chicken. Plus, what a great value — years of psychotherapy in just a few seconds. It really puts things in perspective, right? Well, no. Because that cat’s expression, every time she realizes she can’t have the chicken — it’s truly heartbreaking. The cat doesn’t just want the chicken that it can’t have. No, the piteous, weary desperation on the cat’s face tells a longer and more timeless story — she always wants the chicken and she always can’t have it, and this is how it is, every single day.
I went to a therapist who, agreeing that my core issue — as spelled out by this movie — was that I both wanted a lot of things and felt guilty and ashamed for wanting them, had me craft a little affirmation for myself: “I can have things that I want.” Under cover of night, I did this. It was easy enough. Then, believing I’d been flippant about the exercise, she told me to draw pictures on it. (#California.) I tried to draw Chloe and her chicken and discovered as hard as it is to resist roast chicken, it’s even harder to draw one.
In the end, Chloe manages to eat the chicken, and then — rolling out of the refrigerator, literally stuffed to roundness — she spots a cake, and of course, she wants that too. This moment is played for laughs, but I didn’t find it funny at all.