“I am talking to you, kind of in the same way you are staring at me. Mammal to mammal.”
I never thought I’d say this regarding a film about a man being fucked to death by a horse, but Robinson Devor’s Zoo is beautiful.
Devor, known primarily for his under-seen black comic masterpiece The Woman Chaser, shoots his documentary almost entirely as recreations, taking the technique popularised by Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue and pushing it to its limit. He shoots as if falling through a dream, the camera never stops floating, following, drifting. No one talks onscreen. Instead, voice-over fills the air, interacting with the gorgeous score to create a loose, hazy soundscape, never quite letting us settle into a sense of reality. And Devor structures the film to follow this trend, revolving around the main event again and again, getting closer each time from the past and the future, but never quite giving into the moment. We, the audience, are adrift, attempting to place the speaker of the scene, attempting to find a foothold in time, attempting to find comprehension in the actions of these men, these men who engage in carnal acts with animals.
That’s a lot to ask from an audience, especially regarding a subject as salacious as this. To a certain extent, it could be called pretentious, putting that much distance between the subject and form. If you don’t want to bridge that gap, I understand, I salute you, go on your merry way.
But if you give yourself to Zoo, if you try to cross that gap, try to find reality in the unreality, you may find yourself in the same boat with Devor. As much as he’s abstracted the narrative, Devor is trying to humanise these men. But it’s hard to humanise actions that so many cannot begin to comprehend. And so he keeps us at a permanent distance. We try and we try, but there will always be something ineffable – morals, psychology, shame, whatever – keeping us from connecting to this subject matter. But as long as we’re trying, perhaps we can catch a little of their minds. That moment when they’re staring into an animals eyes, searching for a common ground, searching for consent – and they rationalise their own desperation as recognition in the animal’s eyes. You have seen me, and you are with me, and I am trying, and you can understand.
In the end, all we’re left with the words of the woman who saved the horse from future engagements. “I think I’m close to understanding. But I don’t ever think I will really get there.” There’s pain in her voice, maybe even sympathy for these deviants. She’s trying to find herself in them.
But she can’t.
And, for the most part, neither can we.