A Brief, Strange, and Semi-Erotic History of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”

The original horror movie about cat people that’s not the CATS remake.

EDIT: Happy 73rd Birthday, David Bowie!

In 1942, French director Jacques Tourneur directed a film using by DeWitt Boden with the eponymous name Cat People.

Would you believe me if I told you that a movie made in 1942 called Cat People had some deleterious portrayals of women and human sexuality?: “The plot focuses on a Serbian fashion illustrator in New York City who believes herself to be descended from a race of people who shape shift into panthers when sexually aroused or angered.” Oh dear.

Nonetheless, the film is considered pioneer of the horror genre and cinematography.

40 years later, legendary American film writer and director Paul Schrader directed an early 80s update of Cat People with some huge 70s and 80s players: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, and John Heard. The 1982 version of Cat People is described as an “erotic horror” on Wikipedia (if the appearance of Malcolm McDowell didn’t tip you off to the kind of party this is).

The remake of Cat People was, clearly, a departure from the original. It was made in the sweet spot at the end of the sexual revolution and before HIV/AIDS panicked the world. Rather than focusing on the taboos and social commentary on the desire and sexuality of women, the remake also considered the perils of placing women on a pedestal. However, the 1982 version of the film is much less subtle. Given the decade, subtleness was neither in style nor necessary.

The cast and crew of Cat People ’82 was accompanied by music from “Father of Disco” Giorgio Moroder. It’s entirely possible you may have never heard of him or seen him, but it is almost impossible that you haven’t been influenced by him in one way or another (just read the Wiki).

However, Paul Schrader also wanted a main theme for Cat People: “[Schrader] engaged Bowie for a theme song in 1981, with Moroder having already recorded most of the music. Bowie was to put lyrics to the main theme” (Wiki).

The song itself, in keeping with the dark tone of the film, has some goth rock influences, with Bowie singing in a deep baritone croon while being backed up by a female chorus. Bowie’s octave leap on the word “gasoline” has been called “a magnificent moment” and “among the most thrilling moments he ever committed to tape” (Wiki).

Bowie wrote brilliantly dichotomous lyrics. If, like me, you did not know “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” was a theme for a movie about a cat person, then you might have a different spin on the song. I understood the lyrics as someone who is a survivor, but despite their survival, they unable to feel, relate, or be “normal”. Perhaps they have difficult connecting with other humans via sexual or emotional intimacy. That’s my two cents. BUT….

once you find out the film is about a cat-human hybrid that becomes murderous during sex, the song is utterly literal.

Still this pulsing night,
A plague I call a heartbeat,
Just be still with me,
You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through,
You’ve been so long,
Well it’s been so long.

Many of us, from the Millennial generation especially, first heard “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” when Quentin Tarantino used it in his 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. In retrospect, it was an odd choice. A song about a cat-human hybrid that murders anyone she has sex with? This is why I don’t make the big bucks.

In a shining example of greatness recognizing greatness, Tarantino explained his rationale on using the song:

I’ve always loved that song and I was always disappointed at how [director] Paul Schrader used it in ‘Cat People,’ because he didn’t use it — he just threw it in the closing credits,” Tarantino explained. “And I remember back then, when ‘Cat People’ came out, going, ‘Man, if I had that song, I’d build a 20-minute scene around it. I wouldn’t throw it away in the closing credits.’ So I did. (Source)

The dichotomous lyrics work with the scene. Shoshanna is a survivor throughout Inglorious Basterds. She has seen horrible things and been spared from them. She is stoic and reserved except. when provoked by the insufferable Frederick Zoller- a being that she despises as a person and as a symbol. She only shows slight vulnerability around Marcel, her projectionist and presumed lover.  Perhaps not unlike the Nastassja Kinski’s character in Cat People, Shoshanna’s pathway carries few options other than destruction (though for Shoshanna, it is a noble cause).

“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” has been reclaimed as a sort of war anthem because of Basterds. Almost 70 years after the original Cat People film, Shoshanna, a woman, runs from repression and towards autonomy– the only option. I am not sure if that’s what Bowie had in mind, but damn, it works.

Author: Keelin Billue

Chicago-based writer by way of Alabama, New Orleans, and Nashville. Writes primarily about music, sports (sort of), and the topics that piss people off at work and family holidays.

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