Knight at the Movies Archives
A disturbing, dream-like documentary, a light as a feather, sweet as pie comedy
My first job as a teenager was as a part time ranch hand for a wealthy rancher and his family. This was in Nebraska where I grew
up. My duties included cleaning the tack house and grooming the horses. One afternoon I witnessed two of the horses copulating
but when I pointed this out to the handsome ranch hand three years my senior he shrugged it off as a case of nature taking its
course. We shared a nudge and a wink and though it crossed our minds to engage in a little “horse play” of our own (something
alas, that did not materialize), neither of us meant the literal meaning of that phrase.
But that hard to fathom behavior is the subject matter of Robinson Devor’s docudrama Zoo. The title is shorthand for “zoophilia”
the clinical term for people who are sexually attracted to animals. The shorthand version of the word is what the men in the film
refer to each other as. “Zoos,” the film tells us, pretty much existed in pockets until the advent of the internet brought them
together. Like other subcultures that have found a way to connect thanks to the web, Zoos have their own posting sites, chat rooms,
opportunities to meet in person, and perhaps, even engage in their little understood sexual taboo. The movie focuses on a group
of middle-aged men that did exactly that for a period of time at a horse ranch near Seattle.
The group would meet at night, maybe share a potluck dinner, play cards or watch movies and eventually head out to the stable to
indulge in their proclivities. Then in July of 2005 a member of the group, a 45 year-old male engineer who worked at Boeing,
referred to in the film by his online name “Mr. Hands,” died from massive internal bleeding after having sex with an Arabian
stallion. A subsequent investigation led to the discovery that the deceased and other men from the group had videotaped the acts.
At the time bestiality wasn’t a crime in Washington so charges were not filed but several of the tapes had been posted on the
internet and when the media frenzy surrounding the story broke, they spread like wildfire.
Devor, a documentarian who lives in Seattle was attracted to the story, not for the high titillation factor it suggested, but instead by
the challenges of making a film on such a distasteful subject and by the idea of redeeming the reputation of Mr. Hands whose death
had become a gross punch line. Devor gained the trust of several other members of the group – a paramedic, a truck driver, and
ranch hand – and though they are not seen on camera, their explanations of their sexual predilection, their gatherings, and insights
into Mr. Hands provides an alternately disturbing, defensive, and thoughtful audio commentary throughout the film. Not surprisingly,
the victim’s family refused to cooperate so Devor hired actors to portray Mr. Hands and others involved (including the couple that
owned the farm where the gatherings occurred unbeknownst to them).
Most of the recreations are shot at night and the film, suffused with a blue, midnight glow is filled with haunted images that are
hypnotic: the headlights of Mr. Hands’ car as he approaches the ranch, the men walking through a forest, a field filled with shuffling
horses, Mr. Hands glimpsed under a tree, strumming a guitar in the moonlight. These are augmented by a Harold Budd-ambient
like score that adds to the unsettling effect. Especially evocative is the repeated use of the eerie classical piece “Neptune” from
Holst’s “The Planets.” The recreation technique which is very effective bears a certain resemblance to the work of Errol Morris
(especially The Thin Blue Line)
The sex acts are suggested – in the most oblique manner and only late in the film. “I was elated and at the same time terrified”
one of the participants comments about being invited to join the group while another describes the communion of man and animal
as akin to entering “a simpler, plain world. For those few moments you can get disconnected. It’s a very intense, wonderful
feeling.” This and other comments are offered as a defense for the practice and an attempt to explain it. Zoophilia is a fetish that
knows no gender preference but the group profiled in the movie and defending the practice appear to be middle-aged gay males.
For that reason Devor’s stylized visuals and trance like music which attempt to persuade audiences this is a world unto itself, far
removed from “normal” sexual activity, may seem familiar and much more disturbing to gay men, used to secret behavior after
decades of covert sexual trysting. And let’s face it, cock worship is a central tenet of gay sexuality and “Mr. Hands” and the rest of
the group certainly took that principle to its extreme. That’s not to imply that even a community long familiar with fringe sexual
activities spells acceptance or validation for this behavior or true understanding of it. But Devor’s film, which leaves so much unsaid
and so many questions unaddressed, may be more unsettling for gay audiences because it hits just a tad closer to home – or the
A veil of sadness overrides Waitress. Sadness because of the death of Adrienne Shelly, its writer-director and co-star who was
murdered shortly before the film was premiered at Sundance. Sadness because the movie is utterly enchanting, a delicious slice of
Americana perfectly realized that in other circumstances would have announced the arrival of an increasingly rare commodity in
movies: a triple threat talent that also happens to be female. Sadness, because this is an even rarer commodity: a romantic
comedy that doesn’t resort to typical romantic comedy conventions to gently win over its audience.
Shelly’s film, which obviously takes its inspiration from the trio of waitresses in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, focuses on Jenna (Keri
Russell in a pitch perfect performance) who dreams up her daily pie creations for Joe’s Diner as a release from the oppression of her
marriage to the unbearable bully Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Jenna, who isn’t happy about being pregnant by Earl, is an update on the
Alice/Ellen Burstyn role, Cheryl Hines is Becky, the new version of Flo, the gutsy, sexpot essayed by Diane Ladd and Shelly herself
plays the kooky eccentric Dawn, a variation on Vera so vividly portrayed in Alice the movie by Valerie Curtin. Andy Griffith offers
terrific support as the crotchety owner of the diner.
The jokey, eccentric tone of the movie and its pop art color look are very winning (as is the stop/start romance between Jenna and
her Doctor) and the picture, expertly paced, has a sweet dreamy quality (and sound) of a storybook fable that’s almost as satisfying
as well, a really good piece of homemade pie. This winning little movie will entertain audiences for years to come – a bittersweet
reminder of Shelly’s talent and a testament to it as well.
Darkness and Light:
Expanded Edition of 5-9-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.