This is one of the best films of 2015.
From the poster for "Zoo."
"Zoo," tagged unfairly at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival as "the horse-f---ing movie," is pure artsploitation. Although labeled a "documentary" by some, it's really more of a pristine horror-fantasy about sex -- that doesn't quite have the nerve to face the sex or the horror, and only barely scratches the surface of the fantasy. It starts off almost as if it could become a Val Lewton movie ("Cat People"), but keeps at a distance. Its shadows are viewed as atmospheric effects rather than dark, unknown regions in which a body could get lost. Warily, the movie circles the sexuality of its subjects as if terrified of getting its hands (or whatever) dirty.
It's based on the Enumclaw Horse Case. In 2005, a man in Washington State died from "acute peritonitis," internal wounds from having intercourse with an Arabian stallion on a farm where social-sexual gatherings were sometimes held for such purposes.
"Zoo" exploits this sensational, scandalous death with ravishing visuals and an ominous score (like Michael Nyman's work with Peter Greenaway, minus the wit), but steers away from close examination of the physical, emotional, sexual, political, ethical or spiritual ramifications of zoophilia -- the movie's Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The name is spoken, of course, but apart from a few brief, provocative voiceover comments about animal "consent," or humans who really love their animals wanting to take that love further, to fuse with (or become) other mammals, "Zoo" contemplates man and beast from a cool remove. It's all nicely theoretical and abstract. And yet we can't honestly grapple with the implications (moral or otherwise) of what zoophiles do if we avoid confronting what they do, to and with the animals. I expected a little more raw emotion -- or, at least, passion -- here.
No doubt the movie's reticence comes in part because the three zoophiles who allowed their voice interviews to be used in the film are understandably hesitant to discuss their sexual activities and what drives them -- perhaps especially now that bestiality has been officially outlawed in Washington. "Zoo" could have gained some credibility from a little honest (or even dishonest) eye contact, but almost all interviews take place off-camera, including those with people who were not involved in the case, and not at all in the practice of inter-species sex.
So, instead, there's a bizarre on-camera interview with an actor who plays Cop #1 (I think that was the character's name), sitting on a stool in a full shot, facing the camera against a white background, playing nervously with his index finger positioned between his spread legs. (Subtle, guys.) He talks about getting the part and what it meant to him, especially after an experience he once had with death. I think the movie offers this guy up for ridicule, but even if that wasn't the cruel intention, why is he in here?
My impression was that the filmmakers simply couldn't get anybody else. "Zoo" is only 76 minutes long, barely feature length, but I soon found myself thinking: "Oh-oh, they didn't get the interviews they needed to make the movie." Whether that's from a failure of research or a lack of cooperation or something else, I don't know. But through all the portentous filler, the delays and digressions, you can feel missed opportunities slipping by as you watch it. The reenactments are presented with such anal-retentive pictorial beauty that they become mere decorative distractions. Wow, those shots of Mt. Rainier at dusk (especially through that living-room picture window) are gorgeous. And the day-for-night quality of that footage with the guy walking through the blooming rhododendrons that seem to glow in the twilight? Exquisite. But they're inert, superficial, disconnected images. They just float there, attractively.
I should re-phrase my assertion above: It's not that director Robinson Devor and his co-writer/-researcher Charles Mudede didn't necessarily get what they needed to make a movie. It's that they only used whatever they got to make this movie, and that didn't feel like enough to me. I felt I was watching a wannabe Errol Morris film (without the unflinching Interrotron-Vision), filtered through a wannabe Greenaway film (it's almost a non-humorous parody of Greenaway's "ZOO," aka "A Zed and Two Noughts") -- an attempt to fashion something out of not-much without ever figuring out what that something might be. Without a sense of discovery or shape, the primary theme seems to be: "Quick, let's make a movie about this horse-f---king case." As with any exploitation movie, the subject guarantees a certain level of voyeuristic interest. I just didn't feel the filmmakers were all that interested.
Two examples: 1) The opening shot is fantastic, clever, enthralling. It reflects, in microcosm, the process of what watching the movie should have been like: A light appears, floating in the darkness. As the camera gets closer and closer to it, we realize it's the opening of a tunnel. We hear the sound of a modem attempting to connect. The next shot is a mundane reverse angle of what is supposed to be the entrance to a mine. Over the next few shots a voice describes growing up in rural mine country where he felt he was denied real experiences, and how the Internet exposed him to a larger world.
A promising beginning, but the words are self-consciously layered over the images without really connecting to them. It wasn't the last time in the movie that I felt the camera was pointed in the wrong direction. This is hard to describe, but investigate Morris's "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" for an example of images and interviews and music working together to pique your curiosity and pull you into the movie -- or any Buñuel film for an uncanny manifestation of the uncontrollable essence of desire, or a Cronenberg movie ("Videodrome" or "Crash") for a fully fleshed-out understanding of sexual attraction-repulsion, or a Greenaway film for a scatological anatomy lesson involving the "dirty bits and naughty bits"... (In terms of the movie's momentum, I felt like we should have been moving into the opening of that tunnel, not fleeing to escape it.)
2) The statement that concludes the movie, and the one thing nearly everybody who actually saw the film seems to have felt compelled to quote in their reviews, is from a "horse rescuer" who says that since her involvement in this case she did some research on zoophiles, and although she wasn't sure how she felt about it she was just short of understanding it. A great line. How I wish "Zoo" had been capable of venturing closer to that place she was talking about.
Instead, "Zoo" is, intentionally or inadvertently, a limp study of denial, avoidance and repression -- and not just that of the people depicted in the film. For a movie about the reality of a man penetrated by a horse in a sexual act, it's bloodless and gutless. Not that we needed to see blood and guts, but the horses -- the objects of desire themselves -- remain abstract nonentities. What could possibly be so gratifying about these creatures that people would risk their lives to connect with them? For all the talk about physical contact between the species, the film shows no appreciation for the physicality of horses -- or of people, for that matter. The closest it comes is near the end, in clinically lit operating-room footage of a tranquilized, unconscious horse being hoisted and gelded. (The only other scene so brightly and harshly exposed is the actor interview.) How strange that the movie finally acknowledges the flesh-and-blood reality of animals so belatedly, in such a lifeless, sterile manner.
The implication seems to that the castration of this limp, anesthetized animal is more brutal than any sex could be, but the film itself offers no basis for comparison and no indication it cares about horses any more than it does the people who f--k or are f---ked by them. No one describes the sexual acts between men and horses; they just drop hints here and there. Are the horses or humans harnessed or restrained in some way? If a person makes himself available to a horse and the horse takes the initiative, as a voice tell us horses will... what is the human's next move if he wishes to avoid being crushed or battered or harpooned to death? The film doesn't answer even the most basic, practical questions, treating the subject as so appalling -- the climax is a hysterical series of circular shots of shocked faces watching a barely-glimpsed video of The Act -- that it can't be acknowledged by the rational mind. That's the spot where you'd hope a better movie would begin.
What disturbs me about "Zoo" is its evident unwillingness to disturb. It's an oddly prudish picture, not so much afraid of getting close to humans or horses as, perhaps, unaware of the possibility. What at first comes across as an attempt at openness soon feels more like evasiveness. The movie remains vague without being subtle (boy, is that music not subtle). And it manages to convey a sort of dreaminess without being dreamlike -- pretty, but unable to suggest the potency of sexual appetites.
"Zoo" repeatedly uses what looks like NASA footage on a TV screen, and (budgetary reasons aside) I found myself wondering what it was doing there. Do these zoophiles see themselves as sexual frontiersmen, defying the laws of man and physics and nature? Or are they animal-lovers whose passion follows a course that just happens to cross certain social taboos? Or is it more that the movie itself, beamed in from the uncomprehending distance of another planet, doesn't really want to think about it too much?
P.S. "Zoo" had been in the "save" section of my Netflix queue for a long time, until it recently came out on DVD. A few weeks back, when I commented on a Charles Mudede article about Stanley Kubrick ("Stanley Kubrick hates you"), someone mentioned his connection with "Zoo" and I promised to see it as soon as I could. I was especially intrigued because, as I wrote, I thought the writer of the Kubrick piece had had a real contempt for animals, and didn't have much of an appreciation for what it meant to be one, whether a mammal or a descendant of primates. ("2001: A Space Odyssey," he wrote, dove "down, down, down to the bottom of our natures, the muck and mud of our animal instincts, our ape bodies, our hair, guts, hunger, and grunts.... [to where] our marvelous machines, are limited (and undone) by our human emotions, pressures, primitive drives." Sounds like a shame spiral to me, but it's gutsier and more engaged than "Zoo.")
After watching "Zoo," while looking up more information about the "Enumclaw Horse Case," I came across an early 2006 article by Mudede (with pictures by Devor) called "The Animal in You," in which he writes:
(Please note: The f-word is spelled out in the article itself -- as if you needed the spelling to know what it is. This is a suntimes.com site, so I can't use it.) Looking back on it, perhaps this accounts for the movie's squeamishness, too. However, I would argue that "Zoo" did successfully convey the sense that its makers really didn't think they were making a movie that was about anything "pressing."
... as dawn breaks on a new era in our state, which will become the 37th state to prohibit human-animal sexual relations, one wonders why it took so long for such a law to be enacted here. There are two possible reasons for this surprising omission from Washington State's legal code: Either the State of Washington overlooked bestiality (which is not a bad thing to overlook considering there are much bigger problems to worry about—wars, poverty, earthquakes, health care... These issues are pressing; horse f---king is not), or, the reason for the law's absence—the one I believe is much more likely—is that no one wanted to contemplate horse f---king, much less talk about it. The formation of any law requires a lot of thought and even more talking. To pass a measure against bestiality means you have to picture it, write about it, and describe it in great detail.
I think I see what he's getting at, but am I alone in sensing from this paragraph a palpable tone of disgust with horses and people who touch, brush, caress, clean, breed and ride them? Mudede's taking a deliberately perverse and provocational stance -- that because riding a horse can be seen as a substitute for the pleasure of sex (see Hitchcock's "Marnie"), it may as well actually be sex. Might have been a challenging proposition to explore in a movie. Perhaps if that "Zoo" had conveyed the pleasure some people get from being in physical contact with horses, and plumbed the ambivalence expressed in this one paragraph, the filmmakers would have gotten closer to the meat of their subject.
Perhaps the equestrians of Enumclaw—sometimes called "horse people"—were upset about the horse f---king because it made their own closeness to horses seem somehow suspect. True, it's a socially accepted closeness, but it nevertheless involves touching the animals, brushing them, caressing their wavy manes, cleaning their hooves, breeding them, riding atop them. The only intimacy that separates the proud horse owner from the perverse horse f---ker is the act of sex, which is why socially accepted proximity to horses is disrupted when placed next to socially rejected proximity to horses. Brushing them, caressing them, feeding them, riding them—these people are always with horses, and horses are always with them. So what truly differentiates an average equestrian from an extraordinary equestrian? One way or the other, both derive pleasure from horses.
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