In our jaded times, it’s not fashionable to use terms like “decadent” to describe a creative work. But decadent is the perfect adjective for the alienated artsiness behind the documentary Zoo , perhaps the most boring movie on a sensationalistic topic ever made.
Zoo is the slang term used for self-description by the cabal of Seattle-area “zoophiliacs” whose existence was revealed in July of 2005 when one of its number died from a perforated colon after a mad dash to a rural hospital. The car that dropped the corpse off at the emergency room was traced, and a community of men united by their unconventionally physical love for Arabian stallions was revealed, alongside hundreds of hours of videotape constituting a veritable Kama Sutra of recipes for colon penetration.
The conventional word for this isn’t “zoophilia” but “bestiality,” a turn of phrase Zoo director Robinson Devor no doubt rejected as being too redolent of judgment for his rather archly sympathetic exploration of the horse-on-man lifestyle choice. Devor takes his stylistic cues from some of Errol Morris’ work (including Mr. Death and especially the over-valued Oscar-winner The Fog of War ) by using lyrical cinematography and ersatz Philip Glass music to poeticize the reprehensible in the form of lengthy, dreamlike reenactments.
But, unlike Morris, Devor doesn’t take it for granted that the audience knows what the reprehensible is. The revulsion he anticipates in the watcher is consistently attacked as a limitation of audience viewpoint and then worked against, not only through Zoo ’s numbing and wall-to-wall use of the cool, blue, slow-motion palette of Gap ad cinematography but via the endless and unchallenged special pleading the Zoo boys get to indulge in.
“It’s much like you love your wife and kids,” one zoophiliac says in voiceover, demonstrating a remarkable ignorance of human sexual anatomy. “Pretty much our purpose in being here is to procreate,” says another, “so that drive is always there,” the implication being that zoophiliacs are just doin’ what comes naturally in, um, an unnatural kind of way. When media attention and the odd squad car start to invade the idyllic zoo lifestyle, the affronted disbelief is audible in the commentary: “I was EVIL,” one man says, still shocked by the injustice of it all, “because I had a love for my animals more than most people do!” Animal lovers take note: The gauntlet of demonstrative affection between people and pets has been thrown down, no doubt alongside a few less mentionable things.
Despite Devor’s rigidly exercised message discipline, the voice of deviancy gets through ungarbled a time or two. “You’re not gonna be able to ask them about the latest Madonna album,” a zoophiliac says, describing his relationship with horses. “They’re not gonna know the difference between Tolstoy and Keats. It’s a very simple, plain kind of world, and for the moment you can kind of switch off.” “I don’t need a high level of interaction, whether it be human or otherwise,” says another horse-lover, not recognizing the sweeping and desperate psychological terrain mapped by that “otherwise.” Substitute humans for horses in these descriptions, and what becomes audible is the voice of the whoremonger and the child molester — the man who seeks unequal power relationships and an uncomplaining vessel for his perversions.
As an unintended parody of a plea for sexual tolerance, Zoo would no doubt reject the charge of perversion as hopelessly reactionary. But ultimately the most perverse thing about Zoo is that for all its presumptions of open-mindedness, this film is closed to any consideration of the biggest victims of all. Zoo is a documentary doomed to remain forever biased and incomplete until somebody figures out how to interview a horse. Distributor: ThinkFilm
Cast: John Paulsen, Richard Carmen, CJ and the “Happy Horseman”
Director: Robinson Devor
Screenwriters: Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede
Producers: Peggy Case and Alex Ferris
Running time: 75 min.
Release date: April 25, 2007 NY, May 4 LA