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Knight at the Movies: Zoo, Waitress
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2007-05-09

This article shared 3973 times since Wed May 9, 2007
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Zoo.

______

The hard-to-fathom behavior of 'zoophilia'—the clinical term for people who are sexually attracted to animals—is the subject matter of Robinson Devor's docudrama, Zoo. 'Zoos,' the film tells us, pretty much existed in pockets until the Internet brought them together. Like other subcultures that have found ways to connect, thanks to the Web, zoos have their own posting sites, chat rooms and, perhaps, opportunities to engage in their little-understood sexual taboo. The movie focuses on a group of middle-aged men who 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 2005, a member of the group—a 45-year-old male referred to in the film by his online name, 'Mr. Hands'—died after having sex with an Arabian stallion. A subsequent investigation led to the discovery that the men from the group had videotaped their 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 by the challenge of making a film on such a distasteful subject and the idea of redeeming the reputation of 'Mr. Hands,' whose death had become a gross punch line. Devor gained the trust of several 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 their insights into 'Mr. Hands 'provides an alternately disturbing, defensive and thoughtful audio commentary throughout the film.

Devor hired actors to portray Mr. Hands and others involved. Most of the recreations are shot at night and the film is suffused with a blue, midnight glow filled with haunting images. The whole aura is 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 re-creation 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 appears to comprise middle-aged gay males.

For that reason Devor's stylized visuals and trance-like music—which attempt to persuade audiences that this is a world unto itself, far removed from 'normal' sexual activity—may seem familiar and much more disturbing to gay men, who are 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 reverse.

___________

A veil of sadness overrides Waitress because of the death of Adrienne Shelly, the movie's writer-director and co-star who was murdered shortly before the film premiered at Sundance. There's also 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 who also happens to be female. In addition, there's sadness because this movie happens to be 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 the film Alice 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.

Film Notes:

—The first-ever Humboldt Park Film Festival will be held May 11 and 12 at the city's second-largest park, 2739 W. North. It has been created to promote diverse filmmakers connected to Chicago's historic Humboldt Park district. The fest includes screenings, workshops and networking events, and will host the world premiere of Women & Menu by filmmaker Janet Arvia and Decker, which was shot entirely in the Humboldt Park area by director Frank Kam. Complete festival information at 773-252-3400 or online at www.humboldtparkfilmfestival.com

—Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark, will screen The Gendercator, a new short film by Catherine Crouch, as part of its Dyke Delicious May Shorts series on May 12. The 20-minute piece, a 'satirical take on gender modification,' begins in 1973 following Billie Jean King's defeat of Bobby Riggs in their infamous battle of the sexes, and then moves into the year 2048, where feminism has disappeared from society. Sharon Zurek produced and served as the film's editor, while The Stewed Tomatoes and Ellen Rosner provided the music. The social hour is at 7 p.m., and screenings begin at 8 p.m.

See www.chicagofilmmakers.org

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com Feedback can be left at the latter Web site where you will also find ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.


This article shared 3973 times since Wed May 9, 2007
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