In the 1970s, the English humorist Alan Coren set out to create the grabbiest literary cover package in the history of bestsellerdom. He titled his book, a collection of funny essays, Golfing for Cats and hit the trifecta by putting a massive, and otherwise totally irrelevant, swastika on the front. Needless to say, the book sold well.
Golf isn’t as big now as it was then, but Coren’s other two ingredients remain staples of popular entertainment. We shouldn’t be surprised that one of Netflix’s biggest recent hits is the three-part documentary Don’t F**k With Cats — not one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s favorite sayings, but an ingenious combination of pornographic violence, murder mystery and cute kitties.
The premise is so gripping and horrible that you can’t help being drawn in. In 2010 a viral snuff video called ‘1 boy 2 kittens’ was posted on Facebook. It showed a man playing with two cute kittens, then putting them into vacuum-seal bags and sucking out all the air until they died. You don’t actually see them dying, but you do hear some of the noises, including the kittens mewing sweetly before they realize what’s happening to them. You’re also shown a woman watching the video, so you can register the horror on her face. It reminds me a bit of that scene in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man where the director, visibly disturbed, listens to the audio recording of a man being eaten alive by bears.
Why would you put yourself through this? Revenge, mostly; the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrator tracked down and brought to justice. His name — spoiler alert — is Luka Magnotta. He’s Canadian-born, a rent boy and failed male model, and his crime against those cats was just the beginning. In 2012, Magnotta graduated to actual murder, killing and dismembering a hapless Chinese-born student called Jun Lin and capturing the slaughter on film. He was tracked down to an internet cafe in Berlin, where his arrest by German police cadets was, fittingly enough, caught on camera.
Magnotta, clearly, is a sleazy, warped, sadistic character of whom our streets and pets are well rid. But I’m still not sure that warm, retributive glow you get on watching his arrest quite makes up for the three hours I squandered on his squalid progress from attention-seeking sadist to infamous target of a global manhunt. Isn’t the whole business grotesquely prurient? As you watch, aren’t you contributing to the kind of sick ‘every banana-slug eater shall have his five minutes of fame’ internet culture which may have prompted Magnotta’s vile deeds in the first place?
For me, the most interesting part was the disparate group of cat-loving internet obsessives who teamed up to help track Magnotta down by gleaning snippets of information from his online posts: a Casablanca poster on the wall of his bedsit, the design of the pedestrian crossing in a photograph. Magnotta, being a pervert, was an active and deliberate participant in this cat-and-mouse game: the classic murderer who cannot resist offering the clues that will ultimately prove his undoing. It’s truly extraordinary and not a little terrifying how traceable everything now is. In 2017, the actor Shia LaBeouf photographed an art installation, an antiTrump flag titled ‘He Will Not Divide Us’, at a secret location, showing just the flag and some sky. Users of 4chan, a website popular with the alt-right, tracked it down using details like plane contrails and star patterns, then stole the flag.
None of this will quite compensate me for the time lost in this creepy netherworld. Don’t F**k With Cats would have been worth it, maybe, had it lasted 90 minutes. But three hours was just too long for this kind of kitty caper. This is the major downside of the Netflix extended true-crime documentary series. Involving as the stories can be, the material rarely justifies the massive time commitment.
Consider Making a Murderer, another morbid Netflix series. In 1985, Steven Avery of Wisconsin was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder. Exonerated in 2003, he was convicted in 2007 of a separate murder. After two whole seasons devoted to his story, we’re still no closer to seeing either justice done or the full truth revealed. This is why I stopped watching The Devil Next Door, Netflix’s documentary about John Demjanjuk, the smiling, God-fearing, family man autoworker from Cleveland, Ohio, who may or may not in an earlier life have been the sadistic extermination-camp guard Ivan the Terrible. Was he or wasn’t he? Three long, traumatic episodes in, with more to go and still none the wiser, I consulted Google for the final verdict on Demjanjuk. Inconclusive. Right to the end, no one knew the truth.
I’m aware that real life is messy, complicated, unsatisfying, shapeless and unjust. The purpose of creative art is to edit and shape it into something digestible. Otherwise, life’s too short to bother.
This article is in The Spectator’s March 2020 US edition.