A horse is a horse?

Of course not: two views of Robinson Devor's provocative Zoo

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)

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