The Quiet Absurdity of Sylvio

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Absurd films can often be aggressive. They throw bizarre imagery at you in order to make you laugh and to challenge your perceptions. Sylvio is completely absurd while also being gentle and contemplative. It stars Sylvio, a man in a gorilla suit who seems to be simultaneously accepted as a real gorilla as well as a gorilla that can participate in everyday life like a human. He wears clothing, goes to work and eats frozen dinners on his couch like rest of us.

The gorilla suit seems to function less as a comic, or even absurd element and more as a means of making the protagonist anonymous. Without a face, and without a voice he is a deadpan place holder for where the hero should be. The space created invites us to project ourselves into the film and to experience an extreme form of the Kuleshov Effect. There are many junctures where the blank gorilla mask is butt against another image that hints at what Sylvio is feeling. Two images below could be taken as an illustration of his need for inspiration or comfort or the irony of a saccharine poster that only serves to aggravate him more.

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The gorilla mask is one facet of the Sylvio character. It serves to flatten and hide him. It also alienates him from the people around him. This coupled with his silence makes him reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp except with one big difference. Sylvio is not a frantic, prankster, he is a sullen introvert. What the Tramp and Sylvio have in common is their being silent witnesses to the absurdity around them. Chaplin is both a schlemiel and a schlemazel whereas Sylvio is more just a schlemazel. For those unfamiliar with these Yiddish terms, a Schlemiel is the one who always spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who always gets the soup spilled on him.

The most revealing window into Sylvio’s thoughts are his puppet shows. He has a little plastic puppet of an every-man. The puppet looks like a standard issue business man from 1960. He’s balding, has a mustache and a beatific grin.

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Sylvio puts on modes, little puppet shows behind a table in his house. There is no audience he just films them seemingly for himself. The shows are entitled The Quiet Times With Herbert Herples and are generally awkward but sweet. They are depictions of ordinary, banal activities performed in silence by the puppet. If Herbert is Syvio’s alter-ego he doesn’t really constitute an alternate ego as much as an extension of Sylvio. The puppet has an unmoving deadpan face like Sylvio and the puppet never speaks like Sylvio. What the puppet does do is act out a kind of ideal American dream with Christmas trees, snowmen and nights by the fire.

Sylvio spend a lot of time just observing his puppet and there is an an unavoidable association with all those images of Darwin contemplating an ape. Its as if Sylvio longs not so much to be a human but to have a human life. In some ways the gorilla mask is very present, and asks us to consider it, but it also seems beside the point. We get used to it very quickly and it is never referred to by anyone. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to anyone, its just a way to control our perception of Sylvio.

There is a scene where Sylvio, in order to disguise himself, dons a mask of a human on top of his gorilla mask. Its a cleverly contrived image that is both hilarious and mind bending. Its an actor dressed as a gorilla that is obviously not a gorilla but a man in a gorilla suit, who is pretending to be a gorilla, who is pretending to be a human, but he is already pretending to be human, its just that now he is wearing a mask. A mask that wouldn’t fool anyone over a mask that wouldn’t fool anyone.

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Sylvio was made by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley in 2017. Its the story of a character, who is exposed to the money obsessed world of television entertainment and his effort to keep his integrity. The story is a bit obvious and predictable but it seems like it is meant to be. The film is taking a story and even characters that we have seen a million times before like the greedy acting agent, the bossy manager, or the tortured artist and lets us examine them from a different vantage point. Its as if all of them, including Sylvio are playing out roles that they aren’t really aware of. Its as if the narrative is inevitable but must be played out regardless.

Sylvio is reminiscent of Network in that it deals with how television stars and public figures manipulate their audience and how the audience manipulates them in return. The films share a kind of jaded satire. There are also similarities between Sylvio and 8 1/2 in that both Sylvio an Guido are at the center of a storm of activity that requires their input but both men are reluctant to say or do anything. Both have some kind of artistic integrity that they are protecting but don’t really understand what they want to do. There is some of the alienation and fracturing of Being John Malcovitych, and the strange issues of identity that are brought up in the movie Frank.

Sylvio is a small quiet film that watches the world from the eyes of an outsider. Its both sweet and relatable but also absurd and very funny. You walk away sympathetic and attached to a main character that is made up more of your own projections than of developed descriptions. The trick is that absurdity often involves sarcasm and satire which Slvio has, but Slvio also manages to be sincere and endearing.

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