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Monday, December 12, 2011

Best of 2011, number 7: The Elephant in the Living Room

Posted By on 12.12.11 at 10:00 AM

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Throughout December, Ben Sachs and I will take turns writing about our ten favorite films that had their Chicago premieres this year.

I'm not in the habit of tumbling for summer popcorn movies, but I must confess that I had a ripping good time with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot of the venerable sci-fi franchise and a kinda-sorta remake of its best sequel, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I grew up with the original series, which undoubtedly accounts for my enjoyment of the new installment, but its tale of a research chimpanzee who becomes highly intelligent and launches an ape revolt against the human race also resonates as a PETA-style indictment of our malign power relationship with the animal kingdom. In that respect I may not have responded to the movie as much as I did if not for Michael Webber's startling documentary The Elephant in the Living Room, which screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center in April.

The Elephant in the Living Room may not be the year's most elegant filmmaking (the score is fairly gratuitous, for one thing). But the movie exposes a serious problem that turns up periodically on local news, only to disappear again: legal private ownership of exotic and often deadly animals. Webber and Tim Harrison, a public safety officer in Ohio, infiltrate closed sales and auctions where people can saunter in with a few hundred bucks and saunter out with an African puff adder or some other lethal critter. Various TV reports of animal attacks reveal how many people are harmed or killed by such pets, and Webber creates a compelling story arc in Harrison's conflict with one Terry Brumfield, a depressed former trucker whose weepy solicitude for his pet lions leads to tragedy. The issue hit home with a vengeance in October when the owner of an exotic animal sanctuary in Zanesville, Ohio, allegedly set free some 56 tigers, bears, wolves, lions, and other species before killing himself; in scenes straight out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, local police were forced to shoot down 48 of these unfortunate beasts. As William Burroughs once wrote, "Man is a bad animal."

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