Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review - Zoo

In July 2005, a man was rushed to a Washington hospital with severe stomach pains, and within hours, he was dead. The cause of the man's death was a perforated colon that led to heavy internal bleeding, and it later transpired that this injury was inflicted earlier that day, when the man engaged in anal sex with a fully-grown stallion. Ouch. His named was Kenneth Pinyan, a divorced 45 year-old who lived a double life. Unbeknownst to his friends and family Mr Pinyan also went by the pseudonym "Mr Hands", and he used this name when he sought out those who shared his fetish for horses over the internet. These zoophiles would often meet for parties in which they drank, swapped stories, and took occasional trips down to the barn, where their animal encounters would usually be videotaped. When the investigation into Kenneth Pinyan's death revealed this whole subculture of bestiality, the reaction was understandably one of revulsion and disbelief – how could anyone even think about such a thing? – but Robinson Devor's Zoo is a film that bravely tries to tell this story from the viewpoint of those who were part of it, and to let the men who love horses too much explain themselves.

What a shame the film is such a bore. Devor's intention – to explore the zoophile world and to cast these outsiders as something other than freaks – is admirable, but his film is exasperatingly passive, and the director's desire to avoid any hint of sensationalism in his handling of this story prevents him from really getting to the heart of the matter. Instead, he tip-toes daintily around the edges of his subject for 80 minutes, seemingly afraid of getting his hands dirty by delving deep into the issues this topic raises (although we can be thankful that a brief glimpse of fuzzy footage is the most we see of a sex act in progress). Part of the problem lies in Devor's style of filmmaking. With the subject of his story already dead, Devor has elected to recreate the events of Pinyan's life, hiring an actor named John Paulsen to (wordlessly) portray Mr Hands in a series of moodily lit and artfully staged sequences.

Such a tactic isn't rare among documentaries, of course. The great Errol Morris has often made superb use of skilfully re-enacted sequences that help to draw us into the story and shed fresh light on the events being described, but Morris' films usually benefit from much more focused filmmaking and tighter editing that Zoo possesses. The film unfolds at a languid pace, in time with Paul Matthew Moore's Phillip Glass-style score, and while it's often beautiful to look at, the effect is ultimately soporific. As this is all going on, the film is narrated by the zoophiles themselves, with "H", "Coyote" and "The Happy Horseman" among those willing to offer their side of the story. But these men seem to be incapable of articulating emotions which perhaps they don't even understand, and as they laboriously attempt to justify their "love", the film starts going around in circles. The zoophiles frequently reiterate that the horses were well cared for and that their sex acts were consensual, but as no horses can offer a rebuttal or confirmation of such a statement, the arguments take us nowhere.

The most interesting character to emerge in Zoo is Jenny Edwards, the animal rescuer who removed the horse involved in Pinyan's death after the story broke (the unfortunate animal was gelded for his trouble). Mrs Edwards is a woman who cares deeply for these animals, and in one revealing segment, she recalls a time when she was suffering from a serious illness, and she would often spend nights alone in the fields with her horses. She would draw great strength just from being close to them, just by holding them, and she seems to be suggesting that there's a fine line between that kind of love, and the kind practised by those who don't honour the same boundaries; but Zoo won't make the connection. It can't show us how, or why, people would start having sex with horses, and as a result it feels increasingly pointless. "I don't know how I feel about it" Jenny Edwards says towards the end of the film, "but I'm right at the edge of being able to understand it". Good for her, but few viewers will gain any similar sense of understanding from this fuzzy, empty documentary.