Monday, April 4, 2011

In Michael Webber's THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM, that pachyderm proves no mere metaphor

Nor does the 300-pound gorilla in the room. Nor the pair of full-grown lions and their three cubs. Nor the 12-foot python. Usually when we hear a phrase like "the gorrilla in the room," it refers to a subject about which no one wants to talk, and so it sits there, looming, with everyone looking and speaking around it. This is not the case with Michael Webber's new documentary THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM, in which each and every "exotic pet" featured is more than happy to be talked about by the filmmaker and his subjects.

An award-winner at a number of festivals (it's easy to understand why), Webber's documentary tackles an issue that would seem to go to the heart of a citizen's rights. No, not the right to bear arms, but the right to bear lions, tigers, cougars, chimps, snakes, elephants and whatever exotic pet you might want, despite the possible harm it can bring to you, your family, your neighbors and your community. If you dont think this is a big issue, you should try seeking out one of the Exotic Pet marketplaces shown in the movie, where like-minded buyers and sellers gather and cameras are not permitted.  (Fortunately, Webber -- shown above, right -- managed to get around that rule somehow.)

What makes this movie work as well as it does is the fact that Webber's two main protagonists are likeable and can see both sides of the issue, to some extent.  If the owner (Terry Brumfield, above, with Lacie) of that pride of lions (mom, pop and four offspring) is less able to look at things from the perspective of frightened neighbors, he at least understands the risks involved. But so attached to his brood is he that at times, it seems he'll go off the deep end.

Keeping things clear and as far from the deep end as possible is police office, martial-arts expert and animal protection advocate, Tim Harrison (above) who has captured and resucred a slew of exotic pets of all kinds across the USA. His best friend was killed by his own "exotic pet," so Harrison can easily move from one side of the argument to the other. His connection are pretty impressive, too. If I needed to place an odd pet, this is the guy I'd go to first.

Harrison explains the situation very cleverly and carefully: "There are now more alligator "nuisance calls" in Dayton, Ohio, than there are in Florida."  "We have dog-tags for dogs," notes another fellow, "but not for lions."  The officer takes us to a desolate spot outside of a town where a large tiger, evidently a no-longer-wanted pet, has been shot several times in the face and then left by the side of the road.

We see the damage done buy the idiotic talk shows hosts and their guests, on which chimps, bears, elephants and other wild beasts appear to charm the audience without ever cluing it into what taking care of an animal of this size, strength and danger-quotient is like.  Entertainment trumps intelligence every time.

The movie finally comes down to the story of Terry's increasing difficulty housing his lions, and how officer Harrison seems to move heaven and earth to find a decent home for the animals. While the end titles tell of updates on lions and other exotic pets in Ohio, I think it may be the simple prayer spoken by the group of men, in-cluding Terry (below), Tim and his strongman friend (above) who've helped with the final move of the lion pride, that will surprise you most. You don't have to believe in any higher power to be moved to tears at the sadness and strangeness of the human race.

The Elephant in the Living Room opened in Los Angeles last week and will open here in New York City this week, with many other openings in cities around the country in the weeks to come. You can find all the screenings -- cities, dates and theaters -- by clicking here, then scrolling down.

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