Michael’s life isn’t going at all how he dreamed it would. He works a dead-end job as a dog groomer, lives in a rat-infested apartment, and spends his free time making experimental video art that nobody wants to watch. He’s hopeless.
“I live in Hollywood. I moved here to make movies. But instead… I groom dogs.”
She’s Allergic to Cats, available on video on demand beginning April 7th, is a love story as much about romantic love as it is about love for making movies. The first feature of Michael Reich, it’s a layered meta-narrative — actor Mike Pinkney portrays a character named Michael Pinkney, who in turn serves as a semi-autobiographical sketch of Reich and his past as a dog groomer with moviemaking ambitions. Reich is an experimental video artist who previously directed music videos for artists including My Chemical Romance, The Shins, Bad Religion, and Ryan Adams; likewise, his film’s protagonist experiments with creating oddball video works.
When you get past its zany and chaotic visuals, the plot is a classic boy-meets-girl story: Michael’s life starts to feel a little less garbage when he meets Cora (Sonja Kinski), an enigmatic woman who comes into the groomer and sets Michael’s dreams back into motion. Cora is seen in silhouettes, or heard in ethereal voiceovers, and as she falls for him and admires his passion for his art, it all seems almost too good to be true — but at least someone believes that his ideas aren’t total trash.
When he shares his idea for “Cat Carrie,” complete with a binder full of images showing the 1976 film recast with felines, his producer Sebastian thinks it is a “terrible, terrible idea.” There is plenty of rubbish to sift through during the film, which maintains a gritty lo-fi aesthetic and seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Michael’s not-quite-dreamworld is filled with explosions of color, montages of layered image and text, distorted and looped voiceovers, and a grimy and gritty look embodied by glitches and flaws in the video. It’s a whacked-out kitchen sink of pop culture and recycled bits of esoterica, featuring everything from dogs named Karma, cats named Mozilla, John Travolta TV movies, cages going up in flames, and shots of pets and bowls of Cheetos in every color of the rainbow.
The meaning of these montages is not always apparent, but maybe we are meant to be lost. “Everyone is a lost dog,” according to the title card of one of Michael’s video pieces. She’s Allergic to Cats explores male insecurity and alienation — a lost artist searching for meaning, or for himself, in the bizarro video void. Michael is a pathetic, yet sympathetic, protagonist: he’s an inept dog groomer and an ineffectual communicator, but yet there are lingering shots of him stepping in dog poop or going dead-eyed at the groomer that seem to mock his sad little life. The thing that disturbs him the most about the rats is that they ate his bananas — and it’s hard to ignore the phallic imagery there, though the film never fully explores some of these deeper emotional resonances.
In the mix of gross-out gags and shots of excrement or rotting fruit, sometimes the visuals feel absurd for the sake of absurdity, and the overall tone is a bit hard to pin down. Some of the awkward conversations feel almost otherworldly, and there are suggestions of eeriness with ominous drones pervading the soundscape, though all-out terror never comes to the surface. However, there is also something strangely sweet about Michael’s wholehearted devotion to his work, and to this woman who just might be the woman of his dreams, despite the decidedly unromantic world around him. His art can feel a bit overindulgent, and perhaps the film has a few too many close-ups of dogs’ rear ends to sit comfortably with viewers, yet there are sparks of excitement — hints of something inspired within the zaniness, if it can be unearthed from the mountain of media refuse.
As Michael goes starry-eyed over his visions of Cat Carrie and a future with Cora, the cosmic joke is the eventual reveal that Cora is, as the already gives away, allergic to cats. Their moment of passion is interrupted when she begins to writhe in pain. In the final shot, Michael stands outside in his underwear next to an ambulance, and his landlord presents him with a bowl of bananas. Unsure of what we just witnessed or what to make of it all, the audience is left as confused as he is about what the hell just went down. Maybe it’s fruitless (pun intended) to search for deeper meaning where there may not be any, and we should just allow ourselves to appreciate the sheer quantity of weirdness and visual noise — to remain lost dogs for just a little longer.