La ConditionrnHumainernby David R. SkvittrnZoornProduced and Directed byrnFrederick WisemanrnReleased by Zipporah FilmsrnMuch Ado About NothingrnProduced by Kenneth Branagh,rnDavid Parfitt,rnand Stephen EvansrnDirection and Screenplay byrnKenneth BranaghrnReleased by The SamuelrnGoldwyn CompanyrnFrederick Wiseman’s rigorous documentaryrnstyle disdains the unctuousrnnarrator’s voice-over explanations tornthe audience of what it ought to be ablernto see with its own eyes, and this techniquernhas never been more eloquent andrneffective than in Zoo, the maestro’s 25thrnwork, which was shown on PBS in Junernand is available for rental from ZipporahrnFilms of Cambridge, Massachusetts.rnZoo is a brooding, poignant, poetic considerationrnof nothing less than the humanrncondition. The animals are gorgeousrnof course, odd and easy to like.rnThe zookeepers of the Metro Zoo inrnMiami are attentive, caring, devoted torntheir charges, and altogether admirable.rnBut their business with the beasts isrngrotesque, sometimes brutal, and a greatrnstrain on both sides. If the keepers andrnveterinarians were sadists and fools, thererncould have been an easy protest film, Irnsuppose. What makes this complicatedrnand rich and, ultimately, much more depressing,rnis that we see decent people,rnwith the best possible motives, clubbingrna bunny to death in order to feed a boarnconstrictor or castrating a wolf in order tornmake it more manageable and, very likely,rnto increase its life expectancy. Therernare cages, of course, as in BridgewaterrnState Hospital for the Criminally Insanern(of Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies)rnand there is even an incinerator for therncorpses of animals that die, so that wernsee a quick allusion to Dachau andrnBuchenwald. And it is the institution,rnand the situation itself, that forces thesernkindly people to do these unappealingrnand callous things.rnIn other words, what we have is a longrnthrenody on the text of Genesis: “ThenrnGod said, ‘Let us make man in our image,rnafter our likeness; and let them haverndominion over the fish of the sea, andrnover the birds of the air, and over the cattle,rnand over all the earth, and over everyrncreeping thing that creeps upon thernearth.’ So God created man in his ownrnimage, in the image of God he createdrnh i m . . . “rnMostly, we are flattered by the implicationsrnhere, but Fred Wiseman’s boldrnand rueful question is whether this burdenrnmay not be too much for us. Whyrnshould we have dominion over thesernbeasts who are stronger, faster, prettier,rnand every bit as wonderful as we? Whatrndoes it cost us, morally and emotionally,rnto have to discharge the duties that suchrnmastery carries with it? We see the stillbirthrnof a rhino calf after a 20-monthlongrnpregnancy, and it is not happeningrnout in that forest where trees fall in silencernbecause there is no one to hearrnthem, but in the zoo in front of a gagglernof observers with clipboards, each ofrnwhom is heartbroken. They try theirrnbest, pounding on the stillborn calf, andrngiving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,rnbut that grand dominion we have turnsrnout to be pitiably limited.rnThere are shots of the zoo’s patrons,rnplaying with their cameras in the wayrnthat the chimps and the gorillas playrnwith their shreds of cloth. We see thernmonorail looping around the park, andrngradually it changes from a simple vehiclernof transport to a metaphor of fate, necessity,rndestiny. This is the track we arernon, and we can’t get off or changerncourse. Above, in the spectacular sky,rnthere is the moon, to which Wisemanrncuts from time to time to suggest thernpassage of time. But as with most of hisrncover shots, it, too, takes on a larger significancernand a burden of complicatedrnmeaning. This is Miami, after all, andrnso there has to be a moon, as in the songrntitle. But the imperturbability of heavenlyrnbodies is exact!}’ what we are lacking.rnIn our relations with each other—rnin Welfare, in High School, in Law andrnOrder, and in Near Death—and in ourrnrelations with the beasts—in Meat, Primate,rnand Race Track—there is the samernaspiration that is besmirched if not quiterndoomed by our sublunary imperfections.rnAnd the mute testimony of these filmsrnhas about it the profound hurt of a childrnwho is old enough and brave enough notrnto cry but whose silent tears are nonethelessrnwelling up and spilling down.rnOne of the last sequences of the picturernis a particularly unpleasant one, andrnwhat hurts most is that there is nowherernto point with accusations. It’s nobody’srnfault. A pack of feral dogs has managedrnto dig its way under some fences and hasrnattacked some of the deer and antelope,rnmauled them to death, and eaten partsrnof their corpses. This is horrible and wernare offended, although that is what carnivoresrndo, after all. The zookeepers gornout into the palmetto scrub with riflesrnand walkie-talkies to hunt down thernpredators, and they manage to find thernlargest of the dogs and shoot it. Theyrndrag its corpse along in the dirt, throw itrninto the truck bed, haul it back to therncrematorium, and fling it into the incinerator.rnIt is the reasonable and even therncorrect thing to do, but is it right? Is itrnwhat we volunteered for?rnIn a particularly obtuse review in thernNew York Times, Walter Goodman complainedrnthat much of this film was notrnappropriate for little children. The truthrnof the matter is that zoos are tough andrndemanding places, as is the world itself.rnThe text on which Wiseman preaches isrnas difficult as any in the Bible, and itrngets even darker a few verses later. “AndrnGod saw everything that he had made,rnand behold, it was very good.” Onerngets that sense, too, from the brightlyrncolored shots of the ostriches, the giraffes,rnthe tapirs, the birds-of-paradise.rnThe awe and wonder and the gratitudernwe all feel is up there on the screen, butrnit is humbling, because, as Rabbi Wisemanrnshows us, we are not adequate to bernkeepers, no matter how hard we may tryrnor how fervently we may pray for helprnand guidance.rn48/CHRONICLESrnrnrn