Well, I thought I'd seen it all. And maybe I have, now. Robinson Devor's strangely moving documentary, Zoo, takes us to a dark, dank place most of us haven't been to before but all of us have contemplated, if only through the erotic provocations of art. From Leda and the Swan to Naomi Watts and King Kong, bestiality has been portrayed as not necessarily all that beastly, but actual humans having actual sex with actual animals? That's been the stuff of stag films, porn flicks, urban legends and Catherine the Great bios...until now. Devor, who's called zoophilia (an erotic attraction for or sexual contact with animals) "the last taboo," has brought us a film that, in trying to empathize with zoophiles, bends over backwards so far it's practically standing on its head. And he's presented the issue in such a dreamy, creamy way you wind up wondering why everybody doesn't play the horses.
The movie takes off from a fatal encounter that got written up by The Seattle Times and spread all over the world via the Internet. In July of 2005, an engineer for Boeing was dropped off at a hospital near the rural town of Enumclaw, Wash. He died soon thereafter of acute peritonitis due to a perforated colon, but when the hospital personnel went back out to the waiting room, the men who'd brought him there were nowhere to be found. The men, it turns out, were members of a clandestine group that got together to satisfy their carnal desires at a nearby stable. Before that, they would serve drinks, cook dinner, play board games. But human contact was a poor substitute for their time alone with the animals. Well, almost alone: Many of the encounters, including the fatal one, were videotaped.
Those are the facts, more or less. But Devor isn't particularly interested in the facts. Nor is he interested in providing a context for what we're seeing. What he's interested in is creating a mood - a poetic mood of longing and rapture at Mother Nature's fecund bounty. Blackberries, swollen with juice, wait to be picked. Sun-dappled trees sway in the wind. But there's a chill in the air, picked up on by Paul Matthew Moore's eerily romantic score, a sense that the laws of nature are being, if not broken, then circumvented. Devor got a couple of the men to talk, and he combines their voiceover commentary with dramatic reenactments using professional actors. That may sound cheesy, but cheesy is the last thing it is, for the reenactments aren't dramatic after all. They're more like evocations, although what they're trying to evoke isn't always clear.
"I estheticized the sleaze right out of it," Devor says in the movie's press material. And so he has, but at what cost? Documentaries come in all shapes and sizes these days, so it's not like this one is obligated to wrestle with the questions that quite naturally occur to us. But its approach can seem coy, even evasive. Except for an extremely brief glimpse at a video being shown on a black-and-white TV, we see no footage of the sex acts themselves - a relief, obviously, but how are we to understand these men's actions if we aren't allowed to see them? If sex with animals is as tasteful as the movie suggests it is, why is it kept behind closed barn doors? Devor has said he wanted to get away from the tabloid headlines, which he has definitely done, but how long do you suppose we'd put up with those shots of plump blackberries were it not for the tabloid aspects of this story?
Still, the movie has an undeniable pull, stemming in part from the contradictions it embodies. Sex with animals is usually the setup for a punch line, but Zoo manages to render it both strange and familiar. It draws a veil over the subject while appearing to expose it to the light of day. And the result is a movie that's both provocative and evocative. I don't know what to make of these guys. Their arguments sound exactly like the ones used by child molesters: The horses are so innocent, yet so sexual. (They seduce you.) And I have no idea what the meaning of "informed consent" is when applied to animals. But if to understand is to forgive, then Devor and his co-scriptwriter, Charles Mudede, might have done a better job of helping us understand why these men, instead of mounting horses, got the horses to mount them.