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The Alternate Aesthetic Realities of ‘Tiger King’

Of all the shocks in the new Netflix true-crime series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” — and they are myriad — few are more singular, more head-tiltingly odd than the scenes in which the show’s protagonists, particularly the sideshow zoo captain Joe Exotic, interact with animals.

It’s a disorienting, disquieting sort of normalcy. As if the television in your living room started lining up perfectly with the weather system outside your house. As if the Instagram filter on a selfie you posted leapt out of the phone and stuck to your actual face. Seeing a tiger in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, or watching Exotic pose for photos surrounded by dangerous big cats — something isn’t where it’s supposed to be.

Two timelines that are ordinarily parallel are instead intersecting. It is magical realism, but real.

The seven-part “Tiger King,” a runaway hit on Netflix since it debuted almost two weeks ago, is a cascade of jaw-dropping moments, sui generis self-made characters, and plot turns that are sometimes fanciful, sometimes criminal, sometimes gruesome. It is filmed plainly, often with improbable intimacy, and buffeted with a rather astonishing amount of contemporaneous video documentation. It depicts behavior of dubious ethics, sometimes gleefully.

It is also, because of its commingling of human and animal realities, a steady fount of radical, startling aesthetics. Practically all of the interview subjects are outlandishly decorative in their self-presentation. Practically every surface is covered in animal print. Thanks to its singular, uncompromised, primal-verging-on-lurid style, “Tiger King” has become the raw material for oodles of memes, inspo for a thousand fit pics. It is never visually stable — almost every scene is a fresh shock.

The protagonists’ absorption of animal aesthetics — indeed, they seem to be remaking themselves in the image of their animal compatriots — is central to the show’s titillation. Yes, the behavior the show documents is wild, but the way its characters present themselves while engaging in this behavior is the glue, a seemingly limitless pool of excess that telegraphs a capacity for unfathomable choices.

The root is the luscious regality of these big cats — it is difficult not to be transfixed by them. “Tiger King” loves a languorous shot of an animal stalking its cage purposefully, muscularly. The cats are coveted — by late-night hosts looking for an attention-grabbing frolic, by Hollywood film and television productions, by regular folks willing to pay a few hundred bucks for a bit of petting and private playtime. Throughout the show, humans and fearsome animals interact intimately, intensely and, sort of, lovingly, if that is possible given the general horror of keeping wild animals in captivity.

The cats are a proxy, too — for power, for sex, for independence. Jeff Lowe, a self-styled mogul who partners with Exotic and later turns on him, discusses using cubs as a tool to pick up sex partners for him and his wife; the cats are an aphrodisiac, making their owners more sexually appetizing. Bhagavan Antle, who runs a private zoo in South Carolina, rides an elephant that he raised around his compound and conscripts the women who work for him into a suffocating romantic-professional tangle.

In the case of Exotic and the animal rights activist Carole Baskin — dedicated enemies with many uncanny similarities — both seem to enjoy becoming animal-esque themselves. Baskin, painted in the series as something of a do-gooder villain, dresses almost exclusively in animal print clothing. (Every now and again, she intersects with au courant style.) It scans as an act of sympathy for the cats at her sanctuary, as marketing savvy, and also as a bit of delusion, a sort of cross-species passing.

Exotic is something more creature-like — and is also streamlining an haute-redneck approach to style. He wears sequined shirts tucked into crisp denim, has a phalanx of hoop earrings, has bullet holes tattooed on his torso. When he gets married, to two men at once, all three wear the same hot pink Western shirt. At one point he wears a hoodie with airbrushed tiger stripes on the arms.

His hair is feral, too — sandy beige on the shaved-tight sides, and bleached yellow on the top and down to the end of his wispy mullet. Exotic — born Joe Schreibvogel, later Joe Maldonado-Passage, but never anything other than Exotic — is also a character actor, a set designer, a country singer, a firearms enthusiast, a ramshackle political candidate, husband to at least three different men and more. He paid for one of his husbands to get a tattoo that reads “Privately Owned Joe Exotic” — branded, in a way. His life is a marvel of self-invention.

Inspired by the cats they revere, these enthusiasts mark themselves for external appraisal. Even the secondary characters do so — the zoo manager John Reinke and his loudly decorated, Ed Hardy-style prosthetic legs; Lowe’s awkwardly fitting biker chic, all leather and gauche fonts. Even Rick Kirkham, the ostensible neutral observer who produced an abandoned reality show about Exotic, wears a safari hat, as if a lion might creep up at any moment.

The show also makes clear the astonishing range of products you can procure with an animal print: mugs, towels, curtains, dressers, paper bowls, campaign lawn-post signs, handguns and much, much more.

That is useful when you are building your own reality. These animal preserves — whether Exotic’s zoo in Oklahoma, or Baskin’s rescue facility in Florida, or Antle’s compound in South Carolina — are stand-alone ecosystems, or try to be. (Exotic’s animals, and his employees, rely on regular deliveries of just-expired meat from Walmart for feeding time.)

Even the people on the show aren’t totally certain where Exotic’s reality ends and theirs begins: In one scene, a tiger grabs hold of his leg and begins to drag him around its cage. But the co-workers who are filming Exotic don’t step in, or even seem to sense that things are amiss — maybe in his reality, that’s normal? — until Exotic pulls out a gun and fires a couple of warning shots.

Such disruption is rare, because rarely does Exotic break character. At one point, he invokes the Waco disaster in discussing what might happen if local authorities interfered with his zoo. He has built a world to his taste, on his terms, and he can’t fathom any intrusion into his reality.

In essence, “Tiger King” is a legal saga: Exotic is in jail, having been convicted of a plot (unsuccessful) to murder Baskin, whom he long had quarreled with. But so much of the back-and-forth takes place far from any courtroom. Both Exotic and Baskin are proficient in warfare on the internet, deploying highly stylized videos in which they are the champions — battlefields of their own making. Exotic — a local hero, sort of, and a hero in his mind, definitely — sells shirts, hats, underwear, personal lubricant; he is a lifestyle brand. In Baskin’s world, everything is feline, down to the fans she addresses at the top of each of her videos: “Hey, all you cool cats and kittens.”

What a peculiar vicarious pleasure this all provides — the visual self-invention, the unfettered self-promotion, the melding of two realities, human and animal, into one. It’s a raw jolt. If only actual reality wouldn’t interfere.

In the second half of the series, for Exotic, it does. (As it has in the real world subsequent to the show’s release, with the leaking of footage of Exotic making racially insensitive statements.) His legal battles with Baskin drain him financially, his potentially criminal activities grow in scope, one of his husbands kills himself (it’s described as accidental), and another leaves him. He loses control of his zoo, the fief of which he was king.

Throughout the series, Exotic calls the show’s directors from jail, generally indignant, but sometimes tearful. His reality has been taken from him, and he’s not sure if he can function in the one everyone else lives in.

Source: NY times

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