Beyond the Multiplex

Do men who have sex with horses deserve our sympathy? A podcast interview with the director of a movie about animal love -- "Zoo."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 26, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

As everyone who writes about the Tribeca Film Festival has observed for the past six years, it isn't easy to describe or define New York's spring movie extravaganza -- which has now spread, bloblike, all over Manhattan and bears only a nominal relationship to the downtown neighborhood of its birth -- except to say that it's big and getting bigger. This year the growth is more a question of ambition (and ticket price) than absolute size; Tribeca will screen 157 feature films, an egregious number but slightly below last year's total.

Tribeca sometimes seems like the film-fest equivalent of the endlessly protean product in that old "Saturday Night Live" commercial, the one that was a floor wax and a dessert topping. This year's Tribeca event is a significant post-Sundance indie marketplace and a massive hype event for the release of "Spider-Man 3" -- and a rapid-fire showcase for numerous off-the-radar documentaries and foreign films as well. I suggested last year that Tribeca honchos Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro hoped to displace Lincoln Center's New York Film Festival, both as Gotham's dominant movie showcase and as a social-cultural event. (That goal has been half-accomplished.) Now I realize I was underestimating them.

"We should become, if not the dominant festival, then one of the great festivals of all time," Tribeca co-founder Craig Hatkoff (Rosenthal's husband) recently told Gregg Goldstein of the Hollywood Reporter. In the same article, Rosenthal makes it clear that she sees Tribeca's competition as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Toronto, the four biggest events in world cinema. That's some chutzpah for a festival that was founded in 2002 on a shoestring budget, has no permanent home base and has reportedly run in the red every year (Goldstein pegs annual losses at about $1 million). But, hell, you don't get ahead in New York by being polite and restrained. Part of the NYFF's problem -- at least in terms of image -- is that it's attached to an über-civilized high-culture universe that seems a little less relevant every year.

Maybe a thoroughly obnoxious scale of ambition is the only one that makes sense for Tribeca. Why shouldn't New York, the world capital of obnoxious ambition, have the biggest, starfuckingest, most artistically ambitious and most expensive film festival in the world? (Most of this year's Tribeca tickets cost $18, up 50 percent from last year.) If that's the goal, I have three words of advice for Rosenthal, De Niro, festival director Peter Scarlet, et al.: Show better movies.

Tribeca has become a first-rate showcase for documentaries -- last year, "Jesus Camp," "The Bridge" and "Jonestown" all premiered there -- but its record with narrative features is mixed, if not worse than that. No festival this large, especially when it lacks (so far) the cachet of the big four, can avoid shoveling some crap onto the screen. But this one has shoveled more than its share of unfinished, half-baked and never-shoulda-been-made titles, and like other people in the business I've grown cynical about the value of a Tribeca premiere. More than 100 films will receive a world or North American premiere at this year's festival, each one attended by a microsecond of hype, and then most of them will disappear back into the deep underbrush of Undistributed Film Limbo, never to surface again.

Of course the programmers aren't going to take my advice, since the business plan for Tribeca evidently calls for being big-ass at all costs. I have to admit that it may be working: The lineup has gotten a little stronger every year, and this year's package of films seems full of intriguing possibilities. I'll break it down more in dispatches from the festival over the next several days. But first, let's turn to the most controversial film to premiere at Sundance this year (now being hurried into theaters), along with the latest enigmatic study of violence and its aftermath from the terrific Australian director Ray Lawrence.

"Zoo": Dances with horses, or defending the indefensible
I recently overheard another film critic discussing Robinson Devor's documentary "Zoo," which she defined as "pro-bestiality." As subsequently became clear, she hadn't seen it. I can understand anybody's reluctance to engage with the issues raised in "Zoo," a lovely, subdued film, washed in midnight blue, that flirts with the outer edges of documentary reconstruction and poetic license -- and is certain to make you uncomfortable. But much of the outraged response to "Zoo," almost all of it from people who haven't seen the film (I heard a lot of this myself, after covering it at Sundance), is based on willful ignorance and incomprehension.

Devor and his co-writer, Charles Mudede, set out to explore the infamous story of "Mr. Hands," the Seattle man who died of internal injuries in July 2005 after having sex with an Arabian stallion at a remote ranch near Enumclaw, Wash. (Although he is never named in the film, Mr. Hands has been identified in media reports as Kenneth Pinyan, a divorced aerospace engineer.) The ranch in question was apparently a center for a small group of men who enjoyed, not to put too fine a point on it, being on the receiving end of anal intercourse with a horse. (At the time, there was no law to prevent this in Washington, and the animals were reportedly well cared for.) Tabloid reporters and shock jocks had picked the story clean of salacious details by the time they got there, so the filmmakers ultimately decided to penetrate (as it were) the hidden world of zoophilia, which doesn't simply signify bestiality but love of animals, whether erotic or platonic or both.

As Mudede said in a discussion after the film's Sundance premiere, "Zoo" morphed into a kind of thought experiment: "If someone can go there physically -- be there under that horse," he said, "then I should be able to go there mentally." To many people's evident discomfiture, the film allows several of Mr. Hands' fellow "zoos" (it's what they call themselves, as others might say they are gay or straight) to present their side of the story in extensive personal monologues. They seem mostly like lonely middle-aged men, poorly adjusted to human society, who know perfectly well that their conduct, or orientation, or whatever it is, is profoundly repellent to most people.

To listen to a podcast of the interview, click here.

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There's no sexual conduct in the film, although a brief flash of a bestiality video (possibly one of those seized on the ranch) can be glimpsed in one scene. Devor illustrates his interviews with languorous, half-dramatized re-creations of life on the ranch, using non-speaking actors to play Mr. Hands and his friends (since most of his interview subjects declined to appear on camera). Is the film pro-bestiality? No. It doesn't take a position on bestiality. It does not moralize or tell you what to think, which in the eyes of some critics may amount to the same thing. (See also the idiotic mini-tempest over the alleged moral relativism of Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book.")

Janet Malcolm once wrote that the only thing journalism can do is raise questions about who is good and who is bad; it can never answer them. I'm not sure "Zoo" is a great film, but it is a morally significant one, precisely because it invites us to suspend judgment (however briefly) and consider that guys who like to get slammed by horses are people too, with complicated life histories and motivations we hadn't thought about. For reasons I won't pretend to understand, it might almost be more difficult to raise such issues about a zoophile than about a Nazi death-camp guard or a child molester. As Manohla Dargis observed in her New York Times review, as a society we imprison and kill millions of animals for our own purposes. Is cajoling or coercing one of them into a sexual act worse than that?

I met Robinson Devor toward the end of a long, icy day of moviegoing at Sundance. We grabbed a couple of cups of tea in the cozy Park City condo rented by THINKFilm (his distributor), and talked about the reception for "Zoo" so far, and the murky moral issues that lie beneath it. You can hear a full audio recording of this interview here.

Obviously the story of Mr. Hands, or Kenneth Pinyan, and the way he died, was sensational. What made you think there was a film in it, and especially a film that's so unsensational in its approach?

Of course there was a lot of laughter and a lot of outrage. Laws were changed because of this. It became a political discourse. [Washington's state Legislature finally passed a law against sex with animals, which had not previously been illegal. The men involved in this case were never charged with anything except trespassing.] But there was a big hole in the story. We got such a clear impression that everybody wanted this case to go away. There was no discussion of who this man was, who these people were, and what they thought about having sex with animals. The challenge was to find that other side of the story, and see the world through the eyes of those people.

Your title, "Zoo," is actually the word these people use to describe themselves.

That's right. The technical or medical term is zoophilia, and they call themselves "zoos." Bestiality would be all the way to a 10, so to speak. Just the sexual aspect. On the other end of the scale would be a form of zoophilia which is more emotional and not necessarily purely sexual.

A lot of people are going to say you're apologizing for these guys, or justifying them. You're hearing that already here at Sundance, although hardly anybody has seen the film.

Yes, I got that before anybody had seen the film, and that's classic. I expect that. I don't have a problem with that. If the film seems sympathetic to these men, that's because they shared something with me, and I feel a responsibility to present it in a way that is fair to them. If it seems biased towards them, that's because their stories weren't heard initially. The arguments against them and what they do have already been heard in the media. This movie is maybe an adjunct to what we've already heard about why it's wrong, why it's abnormal, why it's illegal. This is a companion piece to all those arguments.

How did you get them to trust you? I can't imagine that if I was into sex with animals I'd want to talk to a documentary filmmaker about it.

It was a difficult thing. I don't think that many of them wanted to talk to me, and it took a long time. They couldn't believe I wasn't including people who were going to make a mockery of them, that I wasn't going to include police officers and politicians. But as it happened, I didn't think that was appropriate, and I suppose it must have been comforting to them to realize that their stories and their thoughts were going to come through. And they do, I believe. Everything important that those men shared with me is in the film.

A lot of people are going to view this as a case of animal abuse. Now, these men clearly and specifically deny that.

That's correct. The horse rescuers and other authorities have reported that these animals were in perfect physical condition. They were well cared for and not neglected in any way. But the issue of abuse is a difficult one, and I kind of step away from that and let people in the audience talk about it. I don't disagree with some of the things that people may say: That animals are innocent, for example. The question of whether an animal can really consent to something like this is a difficult thing. Then again, I've seen footage of animals having sex with people, where they look as if they're totally exercising free choice. There are instances of animals in the wild who have been sexually aggressive with human beings. It doesn't blow my mind that that could happen. What's interesting is that somebody would act on it.

But the issue of abuse is complicated. There has to be a lot more psychological and medical study involved before we reach a firm conclusion, I feel. How is this behavior formed in an animal? What kind of conditioning is involved? I try not to be judgmental in this movie. I'm just letting these men speak.

One of the radio hosts who talked a lot about this -- I think it may have been Rush Limbaugh -- made the argument that when you're talking about the specific acts we're talking about here, how can it happen without consent?

[Laughter.] The animal is 2,000 pounds of pure muscle.

But that may not address all the underlying philosophical questions.

Right. You know, there's this line in the movie, I think it's from Coyote [the on-screen handle of one of Devor's interviewees]. These guys have had a lot of time to think about this, so I value what they say. He says, "I don't think a stallion cares if there's a filly underneath him or a human." I'm not sure I can totally get my head around that. He talks about the male drive, the need to reproduce, and certainly stallions are studded out, put through a lot of purely sexual acts. But you have to look at how they're put through those acts, and who's doing it.

Nearly all of your film is shot on different locations than the action occurred, and a lot of it involves actors. It's more like a reconstruction or an illustration than a pure documentary.

I would say that there are alternate modes of journalism, different ways to tell a story. As a writer, anytime you describe something you're calling upon your own descriptive powers. That's not unlike the translation here. I'm hearing something that someone says and filming my impression of that. Things are always shifting around a bit.

For instance, John Paulsen, who is an excellent actor, has the very difficult job of playing Mr. Hands. We didn't want the actor to inhabit the reality of who this person was, because this is a documentary film. We wanted to let him try to inhabit the soul of who this person could have been. I think we had to have proxies because of the cards we were dealt. We had audio commentary and two people who didn't want to be on camera. We had to create a visual narrative and move the story.

I've seen other re-creations that seemed very false, so we had some little rules. We didn't let the actors speak when you have another person's real voice there. It's a difficult challenge for the actors, but I think it was necessary. It's not acting in a traditional sense, with lines and scenes. They're just trying to embody some essence of who these people are.

One of the key figures in your film is Jenny Edwards, a professional horse rescuer who wound up caring for some of these horses after they were seized. Clearly she totally disapproves of having sex with animals. But towards the end of this film she talks about learning more and more about what was going on with these guys. I believe she says that she comes right to the edge of understanding it. Is that where you want your audience to be?

I think that's fair. Here's someone who's clearly in the horse community, who has the ability and open-mindedness to think it through and to possibly, almost, comprehend it. Even the zoos would say it's just too far out there for anybody to accept and to get their heads around. I don't expect people to approve of these guys. But if you come out feeling a little sympathy for them, I'm glad. That was the point.

"Zoo" is now playing in New York and opens May 4 in Los Angeles, with a wider release to follow.

"Jindabyne": A dead woman in a beautiful river equals a fishing trip ruined and a town torn apart
When Ray Lawrence's haunting, almost existential, inside-out murder mystery "Lantana" appeared in 2001, it literally seemed like a movie from out of nowhere. Australian cinema had been quiet and not terribly ambitious in the years before that, and Lawrence himself seemed like a ghost from the past. (His only previous film, "Bliss," had been released in 1985.) By his standards, making another film just five years later is a burst of frenetic activity.

Lawrence's "Jindabyne," which premiered at Cannes last spring, has much of the same mysterious magic. Like "Lantana," it's a relationship movie -- specifically, a movie about the perils and pitfalls of marriage -- that takes advantage of Australia's distinctive scenery and sunshine, and that comes artfully draped in the trappings of a thriller. If you can speak of a Lawrence formula after just two pictures, it involves a couple of intriguing actors with Hollywood credentials (Barbara Hershey and Anthony LaPaglia in "Lantana"; Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne here) in a domestic situation that grows ever darker and more enigmatic.

Adapted by Beatrix Christian from the Raymond Carver short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" (also the basis for one of the segments in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts"), "Jindabyne" revolves a group of working-class men from the eponymous resort town in the mountains of New South Wales. Under the leadership of garage mechanic Stewart (Byrne), a local-hero type who was once a championship sports-car driver, these guys separate from their wives and girlfriends for a long-running annual ritual, a fishing trip deep into the wilderness, with no women invited.

Except that one is already there. Floating in their beloved river, the men find a dead girl of 20 or so, dressed only in underwear. She has clearly been murdered (and we know more about what has befallen her than they do). For reasons that are partly ambiguous and partly as clear as day -- the trout are jumping, the weather is magnificent, the girl is beyond help -- the men remain on the river for two more days, and don't report the discovery until they get back to their car and can make a phone call. (No, smart guy, there's no cell service out there.)

Tabloid and TV reporters jump on the case, partly because the girl was of aboriginal heritage and ethnic tensions in Jindabyne are already high, and the men become pariahs in their hometown. (The racial element does not exist in the Carver story.) Stewart's American-born wife, Claire (Linney), becomes obsessed with the case, seeking closure with the young woman's family (who don't want her around). You don't get the sense that Stewart and Claire had the most communicative marriage of all time (his nosy Irish mother, marvelously played by Betty Lucas, acts as the go-between), but the unsolved mystery of the fishing-trip-gone-wrong threatens to rip it apart, along with the rest of downscale Jindabyne society.

There are moments when the racial undercurrent of "Jindabyne" begins to gum up the narrative and overwhelm Lawrence's subtle, compassionate and even spiritual treatment of these people and this place. But I wish one-tenth of the films I saw were made with this much craft and integrity, this much intuitive understanding of where to put the camera, how much of the story to explain in words (not much) and how much to trust his outstanding cast to carry the film with their voices, faces and bodies.

When Lawrence called me from his home in Australia, he cheerfully announced, "It's tomorrow here." He reported fine mid-morning autumn weather, while it was still the previous night (and spring) in New York.

How would you characterize the relationship of this film to the Carver short story? It's different in many ways.

When I first started reading Carver, it was an inspiration in terms of characters and context and subtext. I always loved this story, and thought it would be a wonderful thing to try to make a film out of. But after Altman did "Short Cuts," I thought, well, that's it. I'm never going to do that one.

Still, it stuck with me. The question of that unique moral dilemma. The men in Carver's story are different from the men in "Jindabyne," but the basic manner in which they react to the wives is the same. It's the thing I've always been interested in: the male-female thing. The differences and the conflicts, and how they stay together.

So what is the unique moral dilemma?

It's the question of responsibility. You know, Carver once said that he saw a man on an airplane, several rows ahead of him -- he couldn't see his face -- take off his wedding ring and slip it in his pocket. He said, "That's all I need." That was a big inspiration to me.

Then, when we decided to make the young woman an aboriginal, the story suddenly took off. There were a whole lot of things to work with, and we just went with it.

There's a spiritual aspect to this story that we shouldn't give away. But let's say there are shots that seem to be point-of-view shots, but they're not from any living person who's actually there.

Yes, it's a ghost story. In aboriginal culture, the highest point in the landscape is the spiritual center, and these are the highest mountains in Australia, even if they're pretty small by your standards.

This film is partly about things that haunt you from the past. What haunts Claire's character, and what haunts the men. On a bigger scale there's what haunts our country, the way we treated the aboriginal people.

There is a murder in this film, but it's not really a murder mystery.

I didn't want it to be a murder mystery. I don't have anything against genre films but I don't seem to make them. I wanted everybody to know who did the murder straight away, and it's important that he never gets caught. Evil is just a part of life; it's always with us. Those point-of-view shots are to set up the idea that we are always being watched. You can read into that what you like, but it's something that we live with.

So why don't the men report the dead girl for three days? It would have been pretty easy to do the right thing.

I wanted to make the film with enough room for people to have opinions other than mine. But if you're asking me, it's nothing too complicated. It's a beautiful day, one of them goes off to have a quick flick and catches a beautiful fish. Let's call it the lure of their original intentions.

You've become known for shooting almost every scene in one take. Actors love you for that, I suppose. Why is that important?

I want to get to the truth of every scene, and get to the heart of it as quickly as possible. So I tell the cast, let's not do a load of takes. Let's do very few takes and if we get it in one, that's fine. They're all theater actors, and when they go on stage they're doing one take for two hours. It can be scary for them at first, because that's not the way that films are usually done. But it's not as if I invented this. Laura Linney told me that Clint Eastwood works in a similar way.

It's about giving the actors the freedom to know that their choices are precious and I won't ask them to keep making them and making them. I think a lot of the paraphernalia of making films just gets in the way. Ken Loach said he hates to see crew members sitting around in baseball caps just out of the shot. It's off-putting and distracting, and I try to get rid of as much of that stuff as I can. If I could get rid of the camera, I would.

"Jindabyne" opens April 27 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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