What does loneliness look like? Is it the figure of a person, decked in wayward business casual, huffing and puffing as he leaves his morning commute to traverse a grassy field at daybreak? Is it a rapidly-cooling, microwaved TV dinner placed haphazardly on a couch cushion, plastic film dangling from its sides? Is it an almost-too-handsome local daytime television host, performing stiffly to a camera crew in his basement? Or is it the watering of indoor plants—slow, calm, and small? You will see all of these images and more in Sylvio, a film from directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley about people weathering the storm of inescapable loneliness.
It’s about that, but it’s also mostly about a gorilla who works at a debt collection agency. Sylvio, being a gorilla, is terrible at his job because, being a gorilla, he cannot speak. And he can’t even use his simian bulk and strength to his advantage—Sylvio is a gentle soul, more focused on watering his plants and performing his passion project puppet show than on intimidating debtors into paying up. For nearly his entire life, Sylvio has been developing “The Quiet Times with Herbert Herpels,” an episodic puppet show that details the quiet trials and travails—going to sleep, chopping firewood, making dinner—of a stiff, retro-outfitted, red-haired puppet man. When Sylvio makes a house call—his last-ditch attempt at being a successful debt collector—he is rapidly mistaken as a guest on his debtor’s daytime television show and hurried to the man’s basement studio. The host, Al Reynolds (Kentucker Audley) supposes Sylvio is the correct guest for the time slot (a famous juggler) and hands him a number of odd objects to juggle.
Sylvio is horrible but endearing. He breaks everything, and audiences love it. Soon, the two have embarked on a new, money-making version of the daytime show that prominently features the “What’s The Ape Gonna Break?” segment, essentially just sequences of Sylvio in ridiculous outfits breaking a variety of objects with a bat. It’s fun for a while, and Sylvio’s life begins to open up to the crew, his co-host, and a feeling of community for perhaps the first time in his life. But at what cost? Soon, Sylvio’s heartbreakingly earnest puppet show, his gentle, methodical care of house plants, and his good heart are eclipsed by “What’s The Ape Gonna Break?”—a persona that renders him, to the public, as a bumbling and violent animal.
One supposes that the Sylvio is indeed more than an animal—and, certainly, the audience is aware of the fact, as the featured gorilla costume looks no more sophisticated than what you might find in a Halloween superstore—but as the film goes on, such a label doesn’t hold much weight. When animals other than Sylvio appear, it’s often in stark comparison to the human characters. A deer darting across the road, a pair of horses squinting into the morning sun—the animals tend to inhabit a space of peace and authenticity, as opposed to the frustration and artificiality that affect their human counterparts.
Even from its innocent beginning, Sylvio’s breaking-and-smashing act is disconcerting. And as the camera pans to show the enraptured looks of enthusiasm and delight spread across the audience members’ faces as they watch the destruction, the scenes become disturbing. In their pursuit of community, safety, shelter, and acceptance, Sylvio and Al grow more showboat-y and selfish—less and less like themselves. It seems that the animals of the film might offer a closer approximation to Sylvio’s beloved “Quiet Times” than any human. So why does Sylvio want to hang out with people anyway?
Even from its innocent beginning, Sylvio’s breaking-and-smashing act is disconcerting.
That question is never answered. Sprung (by way of Kickstarter) from a popular Vine series by Birney called “Simply Sylvio,” which depicted Birney dressed in a gorilla suit and human clothes, going about sometimes-mundane, sometimes-ludicrous, and sometimes-beautiful tasks, Sylvio the film doesn’t delve into details. Audiences can look to setting, sound, and design to glean any information they can. Analogue machines—yellow, miniaturized voice-recording computers, old office phones, wind-up holiday toys—that surround our characters in their homes and offices build upon the film’s general feeling of alienation. The sound design by Matt Baker and music by Thomas Hughes and Gretchen Lohse mirror this nicely, combining strained, digitalized performances of classical pieces with warm folk rock. The streets and leaning homes of Baltimore provide the backdrop against which Sylvio, Al, and the crew struggle. Directors Birney and Audley will say that they chose Baltimore because it was welcoming and cheap—locals opening up their businesses with open arms, large lots and studios renting for less than half of what they would cost in New York. Perhaps Baltimore, like Sylvio, was lonely and in need of companionship.
Near the end of the film—an uplifting, redeeming end, I assure you—the movie reveals Sylvio’s inner-life with an eerily quaint, The Wind in the Willows-esque dream sequence. As the gorilla flies through clouds and plays a surreal game of basketball with a human version of his Herbert Herpels puppet, there’s something endemically sad about the purity of Sylvio’s dreams. Sylvio’s—and, seemingly, the world’s—wants and desires are surprisingly simple…but truly impossible to attain.
Thus, the themes in Sylvio are rich; the exposition, not as much. Such an ambiguous backstory, coupled with the fact that our main character, Sylvio, never speaks, makes it a film rife with interpretive potential. Parallels of race and class, questions about the dark side of entertainment content, and comments on the false intimacy of the internet abound with this film—but at its core, I think, it’s a film about loneliness. It’s a film about the face we see when we look in the mirror (which Sylvio does, taking off his signature red shades to reveal a pair of achingly human eyes) versus the face we make when we know we are being watched. I imagine the latter is as transparent as a man in a cheap gorilla suit.