Robinson Devor, I salute you. Your documentary, Zoo, on my short list of the most anticipated films of the year, complete with a can’t-miss premise (a man is left for dead at a Seattle-area hospital after having his colon perforated by a horse penis) and an utterly fascinating back story (zoophiles, and the animals that love them), managed to hit the unholy trifecta of bad moviemaking by not only being dull and superficial, but failing even to illuminate a single shard of its subject. For all of its huffing and puffing, it could have been a documentary on the weather, or any number of subjects, managing to take a story replete with sex, drama, perversion, and death, and reducing each to a tedious slog through artsy posturing and talky nonsense. Despite its brief running time, it felt endless; repeating the same stylistic flourishes ad nauseam and showing so little interest in what made its people tick that it reeked of callous indifference. The focus of the movie, rather than being on one of the most fascinating tabloid stories of our time, instead dropped any discussion whatsoever and decided that we’d benefit more from stripping everything of its context, import, and lurid detail. It’s more than an absence of judgment; it’s utter resignation.
Again, the actual story is the stuff of legend. A man known only as Mr. Hands (his real name is jealously guarded) was taken to an emergency room in the Pacific Northwest, where he soon died of massive internal bleeding. The driver left the scene, but due to a well-placed security camera, his license plate was recorded and sent to the police. This led to a bizarre discovery: On a farm near Enumclaw, Wash., numerous tapes and CDs were found that revealed a secret world of what could only be described as, well, horse fucking. Grown men, seemingly of sound mind, knocked a few back, walked down to a barn, and took giant equine cock up their asses. Was it some kind of Satanic ritual? A loony cult? Mass madness? Far from it, in fact, as the men were simply part of a “club”; a loose affiliation of gentlemen who met on the internet and happened to care for animals to such an extent that they wanted to have sex with them. To hear these men speak, and several of them “confess” on the film’s soundtrack, there is nothing unnatural or sick about it: they “love” these creatures, connect with them in an almost spiritual sense, and are able to best communicate through intercourse. On its face, it appears to differ little from the farmers of yore who pounded a sheep or two out of sheer loneliness, only this time, the animal itself is doing the penetrating.
And so the love story took a tragic turn, as it must, and a man died in excruciating pain as a result. Who was this person? What on earth brought him to this remote locale? The film suggests that he was a loving father and quite respectable in his own way, though the portrait is painfully thin, almost non-existent. Dime store psychology is never appreciated, especially in a documentary, but could the director at least hazard a guess? Was he sexually abused as a youth? Was his father kicked in the head by a rodeo bronc? Did he catch his mother in the hay with a wild stallion? Anything at all? A man took a tree trunk up his rectum and went to his grave soon after, and that’s all the film cares to say on the matter. Objectivity in film is often a virtue, but Zoo proves that if carried too far, the detachment reverts to boredom. Why make the movie at all, in fact, if you have no interest in going beyond the surface details? No fascination whatsoever with the inner workings of a Skull & Bones society that has secretariat’s phallus at the center of its operations? Is it just the sex? Do they believe they actually bond with the creatures? Are PETA bashers dead fucking on, after all?
One could ask a hundred questions, all equally impassioned, and from top to bottom, not a single one was broached in the course of the movie. Hell, I would have even been perfectly comfortable with outright endorsement of the practice; at least that would have been a position. Perhaps it was a fatal flaw to insist on dramatic re-creations, as they always reek of lackluster television newsmagazines, but it’s more than that. Here, they lacked any dramatic passion whatsoever, and the actors went through the motions as if compelled by a paycheck, not realistic portrayal. Some might applaud the absence of shock to the proceedings (as if the man dropped off at the hospital merely broke a leg or something), but rather than progress, I see it as a fatal lack of spirit behind the camera. Besides, men fucking horses should nauseate and appall us, and no matter how liberal or open-minded we get, I hope it never achieves mainstream appeal. For at bottom, regardless of your ability to stomach the sight of man and beast exchanging fluids, it is rape of the worst sort, as it involves a creature unable to grant consent. Yes, animals can be cute and cuddly, and on occasion might in fact be throwing a come-hither stare our way, but it’s violent exploitation nonetheless, and as heinous as removing a child’s diaper and plowing forth. With consenting adults, there should be no legal limits to sexual expression (even polygamy should be acceptable under this belief), but without one party’s ability to grasp the implications, no amount of rationalization will ever bring it out of the shadows and into common practice.
Still, I’m speaking to ideas the movie seemed unwilling to grasp, I’m guessing because the director had other ambitions, such as fulfilling a lifetime dream to shamelessly copy the legendary Errol Morris, right down to the Philip Glass-style score. But whereas Morris uses the abnormal to stimulate richer, deeper thought, Devor is too busy adding touches that will charm his hippie film school professors. The lighting, the composition, and even the re-creations imagine a Morris universe, only without the requisite insight into mankind’s dark obsessions. Take one of many unexplored avenues: the obvious latent homosexuality of the participants. These “gatherings” in rural Washington were stifling in their gay erotica (why else tape each other being shattered by heaving animals, if not to further coax post-bestial indulgence?), but at no point did anyone run with the idea. And where were the psychologists and other experts in human sexuality to at least offer a different take? Instead, we are treated to a single on-camera interview with a rambling, New Agey cop who made so little sense I thought he was drunk. As usual, his tidbits about death were left flapping in the wind, much like a horse cock enthusiast’s observation that with the animals, it wasn’t necessary to define the difference between assorted poets. Is that the usual burden for you, sir? Is this garden-variety misogyny or, on a deeper level, a misanthropy so crippling that animals have been granted the agency, reason, and the ability to express complex emotions usually reserved for humans?
And hell, let’s face it: this film had no business being made unless we too could see some of the barn footage. Fine, I’ll humor the psychopaths and assume that they are in love. Are we not privileged enough to witness that love’s physical manifestation? It’s like a documentary on the JFK assassination without the Zapruder film. After all, it might have been a way to make some sense out of all this; push it into the light rather than confusing the fuck out of us with vague notions and cloudy gimmicks. Instead of a wild, raucous, circuslike romp through the delightful insanity of American life, we get dreary poetry and unwanted abstraction. It’s the exact opposite of the exploitation film we all craved and deserved. Maybe it’s not fair that I leave with the marble-encased belief that horse fuckers are nothing more than gay men taking it up a notch after fisting, and Cleveland steamers become too routine, but it’s either this or admit that with this movie, Devor has blown an almost foolproof concept in unprecedented style. And I hate him for it. This should have been Caligula among the Evergreens; Penthouse Forum with a salt lick and water trough. Never, never should I have gotten a much-needed nap instead.