Dash Shaw’s sophomore effort is a hallucinatory environmental and anti-war romp through a cryptid-covered world eerily like our own!
Austin stands outside the theater holding a metal bowl of popcorn and a vape pen with fat odorless clouds rolling from their nose and mouth, maybe their ears. It’s unclear. Behind Austin, a Cryptozoo poster shows a woman descending on a pegasus from an orange sky, volume to her brown hair pulled back tight around a face with anger along the brow and fierce lips swollen into a red oval. It is lit up by movie theater bulbs and wildfire sunset. The sky here is orange too. I order popcorn with lots of butter and salt and a tallboy. There are two others in the theater, and they are alone. No judgment. I watched Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises alone in the theater, dazzled and undistracted, thinking about passion and violence as I ate Sour Patch Kids and Reese’s Pieces passionately by the handful.
On-screen, two hippies walk naked through the forest saying hippie shit, and some creature sucks nightmares from a woman’s head. Everything is patched together in an undulating collage, a tillage of childishness tainted by an underlying depravity. There is a blood bath happening as a unicorn moves frantic across the screen goring and bucking, while humans die invoking the mystical, tempting the natural. It’s a horse with a horn and it’s considered magical. If unicorns are magical then every plant and animal and living thing is magical.
Mystical shit has been running through my head all day.
I’ve lit incense, blood let, and chanted in rituals where weird things happen—telepathy, snake gods, merging with the infinite—but I don’t know what it means. Twice I watched a green fireball creep slowly through the sky, five years apart, and I believe completely that it was something extraterrestrial or interdimensional. The first time, I sat in dried moss next to my ex who drained all the magic from the world. She said it was just a piece of space debris, a defunct satellite or a dead astronaut. She was wrong. It’s a UFO studied by Dr. Lincoln La Paz, an astronomer who declared the fireballs did not move like a natural thing and must be of alien origin. I didn’t tell her because I thought she’d lose her cool. Her temper was short—she harnessed unparalleled brutality toward those around her and toward herself. I’ve seen signs of witches and ghosts and fairies too around rural lakes and attics, but my senses aren’t enough to explain it.
The woman in the film is a cryptozoologist not due to her passion for science or knowledge necessarily, but because of her love for cryptids. My girlfriend has spent the last four summers in the wilderness tracking bears so we can know what is left, what we can still protect as humans continue to thin out predators—wolves, bears, and mountain lions.
I tear up thinking about the rate of extinction.
The Sixth Mass Extinction.
The Holocene Extinction.
It’s unnatural. Paranormal.
I didn’t cry at Grandma’s funeral, because I don’t cry at appropriate times.
I cry about existence when it is inappropriate.
A faun named Gustav sits cross-legged on screen, smoking a large pipe, the smoke lingering a long time as he oversees a moist, bodily orgy. I think of Pan, god of the forest and the fields and the mountains, purveyor of those fantastic and depraved pleasures bound by flesh, expansive and touching the hallucinatory.
Austin is into woo woo shit—astrology, chaos magic, divination. That kind of thing. We get along. After the movie, I ask them, “If we were more connected to our bodies could we stop ecocide?” I mention Élisée Reclus who said, Humanity is nature becoming self-conscious, but I don’t like debating philosophers and theory. I just enjoy shooting the shit about ideas.
Austin says something like, “Our bodies are suffering because they are embedded in this ecological mess. We aren’t separate from it, know what I’m saying? My lungs and eyes are burning like a motherfucker because of this wildfire. Don’t get me wrong. Even before we started wrecking the Earth, we still felt the pain of existence and embodiment. But it’s always an indicator of something. All this pain tells us something is wrong.”
I say, “I’ve been meditating. I suck at it, but I put in fifteen minutes when I can, and it’s like I’m more aware of the world and the feeling that the planet is suffering, more and more. It’s hard to ignore. Gives me this fatalist anxiety.”
Austin says, “We’re hurt by progress either way. Even if we don’t say, ‘Ouch, this hurts.’ It’s slow violence.”
There’s a stint of silence.
Austin says, “This is gonna sound cheesy, but it’s a psychic attack because of this, like, uh, consciousness that moves through shit. Pan-psychism, I guess? I don’t really separate mind and body like that… I dunno…”
I guess it seems pretentious now that I’m writing it, but that’s what we were talking about and that’s what I was thinking about after watching Cryptozoo as we walked over the river listening to the water on the rocks, gurgling black heaven at twilight, and through town listening to the tires on the streets—scattered shouts from the ruptured throats of crust punks laying sidelong across the walkways.
We sit down at this burger joint that everybody tells me has the best burgers. I order a tallboy. It is a wet ass burger, like a burger meets a sloppy joe. I like burgers, and I like sloppy joes, but I’m not into sloppy joe burgers. It sits in its own muck and my muck, merging then indistinguishable from my spit as soon as it touches the tongue. For a moment that stretches through me, I am the burger. The wet burger. The fries are on-point, though, balancing the sog and the crunch down the length of each fry, perhaps oversalted but well-seasoned. Still, I’m feeling underwhelmed with the meal when Kirsten walks by waving, arm-in-arm with her fiancé, Steve, and a friend from Ann Arbor. “Yo, what’s up? You get a burger here? Aren’t they bomb as fuck?”
“Eh, yeah, it’s fine.”
Austin is fidgeting. They are in that weird space where two people have met and they recognize each other, but neither is sure that the other recognizes them, so no one says anything, and they just sit and sweat a little in silence. I don’t reintroduce them.
Kirsten says, “This is my friend Aaron from Michigan. We did a forty-mile bike race this morning. So. Much. Fucking. Incline. Dude, it was redonk.” She points back. “Aaron finished 148th out of 150.” She laughs. “I kept telling him to prepare. Get in shape and shit. But this motherfucker didn’t listen. He was huffing and puffing. I had to leave his ass behind.”
Aaron says, “I tried to tell you that I wanted to drop out this fucking morning. We biked up that hill from our campsite and I was like ‘fuck this,’ but you insisted and now you’re talking shit. I knew you were gonna talk shit. I thought about all the shit you were gonna talk for forty fucking miles.”
Kirsten keeps talking shit, and I zone out a little bit. I’m getting tired.
“What’s the deal? You look tired,” Kirsten says.
“Yeah, I am tired.”
“Well, we’ll let y’all finish dinner. Enjoy that bomb ass burger!”
“Sure, yeah. Have a good night!”
They walk away and Austin gets right back to talking Rosicrucianism. I’m zoning out. This underwhelming hamburger has me all fucked up. We finish our food and walk toward the bridge. I swing by the corner store to snag a tallboy. The fresh air is stilted by the smell of burning wood. Everything smells like fire. I cannot see the stars to imagine the things that might live up there, gazing toward the weight of empty space. I stare inward and see little things like atoms and anxieties. I hold them in the same way. The bridge is lit up and the lights are reflecting off the water flowing slowly because rainfall is scarce, and I wonder where all that water goes and where it comes from, and I’m pissy, angry about the drought.
I get this pain in my left side when I drink heavily. My body is telling me something is wrong, because a river runs through me—a river of beer and Wild Turkey. When it comes to excess, I never listen to my body. I continue to live excessively. Yet, a river still flows beneath me too, a river that has carried me and quenched my midnight thirst. Frozen then thawed in spring, ice from winter’s last throes floating through Noxon and Cabinet and Heron.
A 12-point buck drinks from the river as we stand focusing our slack vision, watching for a while; its spine crooked, unconcerned through the skittishness shaped at the tip of evolution. I stare at it and wonder if there is any way to imagine a creature that is truly unique without conjuring visions of animals we already know. They must exist out there, but a pegasus and a unicorn are just horses with extra parts. Every creature in Cryptozoo looked like something that already exists—a hairier primate that walks on two legs or a giant, slithering megasnake. Even the xenomorph in Alien resembles a slobbery praying mantis. I believe in mystical things—aliens and witches and interdimensional fairies—but even without them the world feels magical to me. There is a deer on the riverside.
Overall, Cryptozoo is a film that stands on two legs with a message of ecological compassion for the non-human world through a collage of psychedelic visuals and animal liberation. Yeeeaaah, man. 3.5/5