Bright Lights Film Journal

Docurama Bizarra: MELLODRAMA; ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM

Some very strange and enticing documentaries have been passing through my screens lately. Here’s two of the better ones. Keep out an eye!

ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM
(2010)
A documentary on the weird world of Ohioans keeping dangerous wild animals as pets (it’s legal there), this film couldn’t be more timely in the light of recent events (see Huff Post’s piece on the recent escape of dangerous animals from an Ohio nature preserve). Once the intro winds down, this film’s drama settles in on a confrontation with burly, bearded Ohio lion owner Terry Brumfield and his mustached, well-meaning public officer rival, Tim Harrison. The latter is on a one-man crusade to help save his state’s man-eating darlings, but he operates in a state where the legality of dangerous pets is protected. And when the thing escapes and takes up residence in your neighbor’s walls as happens with a rascally python, or when Brumfield’s male lion gets out of his pen and takes a stroll across the highway, then the cops are expected to risk their lives to get these critters reigned back in. Neighbor of buyer, beware!

Harrison and Brumfield get plenty of chances to get all misty and make their cases: Harrison is more rational but Brumfield has more ‘color’ – with his cigarette-stained stubby fingers, growly vocal twang and lion mane-beard, he’s a bit like Burl Ives meets Tom Waits in an alley where they’re bitten by Warren Oates and become a were-lion when the moon is full, and even when it isn’t. Harrison reminds us of the cop played by John C. Reilly in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA. And you root for him too; his job is the hardest. He even goes in to dangerous reptile conventions and buys up the most lethal to prevent them from getting in the hands of some dumb hick who’ll let it loose to bite the neighbors in ’round a year once he gets bored (we presume).

But Brumfield’s love is true, larger than life, and his bond with his beasts is clear and appreciable from a mile off. Like a nosy python in an old lady’s walls, the documentary insinuates its way deep into the archaic conundrum that occurs time and again, when a beautiful inter-species bond becomes a hazard to everyone around it. It’s heartbreaking to see these two lions suck in an old horse trailer for months at a stretch. It’s depressing to see any of these wild animals under the subjectification of anyone with the cash and desire to be different than ‘normal’ pet owners – yeah lion cubs are cute, but so are kittens. Just last night I saw one of those assinine “Stay thirst, my friends!” commercials with ‘the most interesting man in the world’ and you see him relaxing at home with a panther on the counter. What kind of message does that send? You want to be interesting and get girls? Forget about Dos Eqquis, buy a pet panther!

But if you’ve ever seen a ‘real’ nature documentary then you know that real life lions and other predators aren’t necessarily that much better off in the real wild where they’re regularly facing starvation, cobra bites, hyena attacks, drought, poachers, infections, and other ills. But a cage is no protection either. In the film’s most gut-wrenching moment, Brumfield accidentally electrocutes the mud below the cage. Brumfield and his lion share a final moment and you can read the fire and sense of loss tempered by affection for Brumfield in the lion’s eyes, and the utter distraught agony in Brumfield’s. The camera captures the whole terrible scene and it’s the great poetic heart of the film – there’s not been an inter-species gaze as devastating since Naomi Watts and her monkey on the Empire State Building, but this here is real.

I have a weak spot for lions for lions myself – and never fail to cry at the reunion between Christian the lion from Harrod’s and the lads who got him as a cub, John Rendall and Ace Bourke–but those lads found the lion a home on an African preservation well before he reached full maturity –as evidenced by this ‘one year later’ visit. Now THIS shows you an interspecies love affair can have a happy ending! Christian the Lion

MELLODRAMA: The Mellotron Documentary
(2009)
A film by Dianna Dilworth, this is as anguish and catharsis-free as ELEPHANT was emotional, but that’s not to say it’s not cinematic, just that luckily mellotrons never get too big for their pens, or run amok anywhere but on prog rock albums. Here there is only the affection felt by an array of musicians for the mellotron and sound engineers chronicling the advancements of what began as the tinkering of a middle American guy in the post-WW2 era who just wanted to be able to play the standards in a richer way on Sunday so the family could sing along. Said fella made the very first loop based keyboard, which he called the Chamberlin. His lead salesman stole the blueprints and sold them to a British company who remade it as the mellotron, deals were worked out with the original guy, and the rest is history of a sort.

The documentary’s main attraction is seeing an array of musicians step up to the plate to praise the instrument and tell their own tales of hunting down rare editions or sampler tapes. The film’s passing resemblance to MOOG and THEREMIN: A MUSICAL ODYSSEY should make it a must for weird early electronic instrument aficionados; for musicians, music critics and music writers it’s an absolute essential. I came away from it with a full idea of what the mellotron actually was and is, and how to identify it in any song, and lately I’ve been listening to Fiery Furnaces and it’s all over their stuff, let me tell ya.

Mike Pinder wrote an accompanying essay for the DVD liner notes. Members of Goblin, Latin Playboys, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Yes, Cheap Trick and the Zombies also chime in on the glory of the mello-ness, and you get to realize hey, some of these fossils are still cool. For some musicians, the music saw them through the miasma of sex and drugs of their heyday. The music will keep any true musician afloat through these times, if he never lets go… )

The film goes all the way up to the world of modern mellotron computer programs, to make your MIDI instrument hum like an old school mellotron Jimmy Page might play on Death Wish 2. By the end you may be a bit tired of looking at used electronics, especially if you were just the bass player in your band and forced to wile away hours at the music store pretending not to be bored while your drummer looked at brushes and hi-hats. But if you’re restless, take a break and come back, treat it like a good book. Your sig. other who doesn’t share your geek love of the tape loops and bolts of early sampler synthesizers may sigh, but he or she started hanging out with you because you’re a kickass musician, am I right? They wont want to fuck with your need to know as much about your craft as you can. If they do want to, well who do you love (more) now, baby? As Zappa once said, “music is the best.”

And get the CD: Mellodrama: The Mellotron Music which includes a lot of the old mellos in action and may prove a big old goldmine for samplers in search of the bizarre, right up there with Re/Search: Incredibly Strange Music series and Gravikords Whirlies and Pyrophones