A horse is a horse?

Pub date May 22, 2007
SectionFilm Review

HANDS OFF A professor of mine was fond of posing a certain thought experiment. As Martian anthropologists, free from any earthbound cultural conceptions, his students had to come up with a baseline definition of sex. First he’d field their not wholly impartial attempts. Then he’d coolly roll out his description: it’s an involuntary muscle spasm caused by applied friction.

Writer Charles Mudede and director Robinson Devor attempt a similar thought experiment with their beautifully lensed but frustratingly airy documentary, Zoo. Only, in the case of their subject, the applied friction is generated by an Arabian stallion, which brings about not an involuntary muscle spasm but the accidental death of the man whose colon the stud has perforated in flagrante.

Perhaps no one would have known of Kenneth Pinyan, a divorced Boeing engineer initially identified only by his online moniker Mr. Hands, had he and a circle of fellow “zoos” (short for “zoophiles”) who occasionally got together on a remote farm in rural Enumclaw, Wash., to express their erotic attraction to animals not routinely filmed themselves. But in our culture, nothing stirs up a media shit storm like a leaked sex tape, especially when it’s of the interspecies variety.

Whereas my professor tried to get his students to see how inseparable sex is from culture by forcing us to think outside cultural lines, Mudede and Devor attempt to divorce the “horse sex case,” as it was jokingly dubbed, from the tabloid sensationalism that accrued to it. While Zoo gives the now disbanded and publicly shamed circle of men associated with the incident a space in which to explain their desires, they still emerge as ciphers for a yearning beyond the pale.

Indeed, the oblique strategies Devor favors — talk radio snippets and loose reenactments, off-camera interviews with the zoos and with an animal-rights activist and a cop who made calls to the farm — cast his subject in an almost mythological light. Sean Kirby’s lush cinematography certainly does its part to transform Enumclaw into a rustic Eden; the zoos’ slow-motion ambling toward the barns is swathed in the dusty violet blanket of a blooming tree or silhouetted against the ocher smudge of dawn. We could be in a Ford commercial or in an establishing shot from that other American pastoral of unmentionable vices, Brokeback Mountain.

If the link between bestiality and homosexuality seems specious, or worse yet, part and parcel of the kind of relativism frequently trotted out by the religious right, let’s not forget (thanks, Michel Foucault!) that until roughly the 19th century, be it with horse or man, all nonprocreative sex was considered sodomy. There are echoes of this genealogy in the anxiety voiced among Zoo‘s disembodied Greek chorus over the issue of consent (or its absence). In particular, the animal-rights activist’s likening of the horse to “a violated child” is uncannily reminiscent of conservative rhetoric surrounding homosexuals, supposed predators who, pre-Stonewall, were forced to inhabit a twilight world not unlike that of the clandestine community of zoophiles.

These contradictions and similarities point to some recurrent stumbling blocks in our thinking about sex. The most perverse act in Zoo, it could be argued, is the gelding of the offending stallion “for its own protection,” so that it can no longer be a potential object of desire.

Zoo raises such issues with far more frequency than it discusses them. Unlike Werner Herzog, who tersely evaluated his subject Timothy Treadwell in 2005’s Grizzly Man, Mudede and Devor avoid commentary. Zoo is far more fascinated by this supposed limit case of sexuality than interested in fleshing out Pinyan and his world beyond the details already enumerated in what was surely a very curious obituary. (Matt Sussman)

MY RECTUM FOR A HORSE I suspect there will be a lot of walkouts from Robinson Devor’s documentary about the 2005 Enumclaw horse incident, in which an airplane engineer referred to as Mr. Hands sustained fatal injuries while bottoming for a horse. But it won’t be the easily offended who run from their seats.

The revenue that small theaters are surely losing to senior discounts on Away From Her‘s ticket sales will easily be recouped from ill-informed frat boy field trips to what they think will be Internet Horse-Schtupping: The Movie. Barebacking jokes during the trailers will give way to a disappointed silence during a mesmerizing opening shot of what looks like a pixie flying in a field of blackness, slowly expanding and revealing itself to be the light at the end of a tunnel.

Zoo, intriguingly, never really crawls out of that tunnel. The movie, which is about the horse-loving men in Mr. Hands’ community as much as it’s about his death, presents an impressionistic collage of nature images, reenactments, voice-overs, and media samplings. (Turns out Rush Limbaugh and I see eye to eye on some things.) It’s also a collage of emotional cues: some scenes allow the music to suggest sinister qualities in the men’s activities, but there are also images that look like mood lighting was added to Harry Potter’s photo shoot for Equus, hinting at a level of intimacy that boring old queer and straight folks couldn’t possibly understand.

Devor isn’t just allowing for more than one response to the facts — he appears to be courting them all, creating a sort of controlled chaos that, of course, frees him from the restraints of his own opinion. The result is a coolly aestheticized yin to the snickering yang of the online frenzy in 2005.

This may come off as a cop-out to partisans on either side of the debate, inasmuch as it exists, about zoophilia and bestiality (after all, Edward Albee’s 2002 play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? lost no artistic integrity in more directly addressing the implications of interspecies hanky-panky). Devor shouldn’t be criticized for undertaking a detached aesthetic exercise, it seems to me, yet to follow this tack with such a flammable subject can’t help but be a comment in some way. But in what way?

Zoo could reasonably be accused of either acquitting the Enumclaw zoophiles by their mere association with the film’s artsy ambivalence or, a more insidious possibility, fostering a hyperawareness of what is downplayed, implying disgust via a kind of negative-space sensationalism. Whatever the stunt, the film isn’t stunted. While some of the reenactments feel a bit too literal for the tenor of the rest of the film and the actors often seem poorly directed, there is an undeniable harmony to the whole. Zoo emits a quiet, narcotic hum that the gross-out contingent in the audience won’t likely stick around to tap into.


Opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters

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