The Elephant in the Living Room (2010) – by Michael Webber, starring Terry Brumfield and Tim Harrison

by Margaux Williamson

(The closest cinema to where I’m staying in San Francisco is called Roxie Theater. Roxie Theater was playing a movie I hadn’t heard of: “The Elephant in the Living Room.” I looked around but it seemed like all the other nearby cinemas were playing movies for kids. I thought: maybe June is when kids watch movies. So I went around the corner and bought a ticket. It was being presented by the United Film Festival as part of their “Animal Rights” program. The director of the festival and the director of “The Elephant in the Living Room” sat down in the narrow line of blue seats with the audience when the movie began.)

The narrative of “The Elephant in the Living Room” is sort of: “There is a lion in my backyard – and it is getting bigger!” It focuses on people who keep animals like pythons and tigers in their homes, and what happens when the pythons and tigers grow larger than the people. Sometimes the people dump the animals in the suburban wilds. Sometimes they keep them.

We mostly see Ohio. We mostly look at two characters: The Man with a lion, and The Officer from the state. The Man, a big soft spoken one who looks a bit like his lion, was given the baby lion when he had a broken back and depression. He says the love helped him to survive. But then the baby lion grew up and became a big lion in a small cage. And then they were stuck there, the lion in the cage and The Man who made the cage.

The Officer, with the mustache and the baseball cap, is sincerely hoping to untangle the love/cage problem for the lion and The Man – and for Ohio. He is brave and kind and he is good at his job. He really wants to do the right thing. He catches cougars found in peoples’ backyards. He tries to find better places for them. He buys the most poisonous snake at the Underground Snake Convention so that no one else buys it. But snakes make a lot of babies and he cannot buy all of them. The Officer is exhausted. Cases like these have just been increasing every year since the mid 90s and he doesn’t know why. (My theory – that monkey on “Friends” is to blame).

The Officer doesn’t see an end to the problem. The few exotic animal santuaries in America are mostly over capacity. He is starting to question his role and what side he is on. We see a pleasing shock in his eyes when a new idea occurs to him – maybe, he thinks, he should not try to capture the dangerous animals in the suburban wilds. Maybe he should let them run free.
I thought of the movie The Matrix Reloaded (Matrix #2) – the humans being kept in cages by computers and the growing number of humans who escape, then are hunted down by the computers. I had recently picked it out of a sale bin at Walgreens. The bin was under a helium balloon that said “Papa Navedaz!”

The Matrix2 doesn’t work so well. I think it is because everything started off with too much value. When everything has equal value, it’s hard to know what to focus on. Like, here are the proper names in the movie: The One, The Architect, The Key-maker, Zion, Trinity, Morpheus, Persephone, The Oracle. That is a lot of value! Midway through, I had a real longing for some garbage – or at least a mortal. I wanted The Farter, The Fuck up, The Mistake, The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly.

You have to be a real magician to take only value and double it. Sometimes it is easier to make a movie that begins with lowlier proper nouns and then move them towards value. “The Elephant in the Living Room” starts in the middle of nowhere and moves towards value. Apart from some seriously problematic music choices, the movie is funny and sweet and occasionally brushes against epic. It is really interesting to see men working together to solve the old love/cage problem as though it is a new problem. Since we are only starting from Ohio and not from the olden times, it looks kind of like a problem that men have only just discovered. It is as though, from this perspective, we are watching a mass male entry into the nurturing arts and its complications. They are beginning with snakes and tarantulas. It’s a hard-won pleasure to catch a glimpse of The Man’s heart of gold or see that The Officer may in fact be “The One”. And it is a surprise when we can see the vague but convincing outlines of a possible apocalyptic scenario (where these animals first take over the suburban wilds and then, all of America) – originating in Ohio! At least more surprising than seeing one originate in place called Zion.

For a good apocalyptic movie scenario, you really need at least a few elements without so much consistent value . The good ones are like a magnifying glass on the thriving life, boredom and absurdity of a regular day. To our delight or pain, we watch as things randomly, and with great speed, move in and out of meaning, value and existence. It is like a bird lands on your shoulder just as the convenience store goes up in flames – you don’t know what the fuck is going on, but you know something is happening. Our human brains lag behind the action, working hard to make meaning from the chaos. It is what we do best.

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