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Lifelike
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by EricDSnider

"Animals in their natural habitat: stuffed and mounted"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: Because every subject will eventually have a quirky documentary made about it, here's the one about taxidermy, called "Lifelike."

Insubstantial but pleasant, "Lifelike" is a brief (52-minute) look at the art of taxidermy, focusing on a few practitioners in Canada as they gear up for a major competition. Director Tally Abecassis takes us into the workshops of several congenial, altogether Canadian men -- it's always men who hunt animals and then turn them into trophies -- and gives just a little peek into the process.

Dave Gibson is young and optimistic, a relative newcomer to taxidermy who has big dreams of placing high in the competition and who can say things like, "I love working with wildlife" without irony. (His wildlife is all dead, after all.) His mentor -- his Obi-Wan Kenobi, if you will -- is Ray Robinson, an articulate and philosophical older man who observes that taxidermists "are like animal morticians."

Meanwhile, Jeff Brain has his own taxidermy shop, where a man named Calvin is his apprentice. Jeff made me laugh early on when he referred to his mother as "Mother" -- not "my mother," just "Mother," as in, "When I was in high school, I spent all my Friday nights in Mother's basement." His mom is known as "Mother" and he's into taxidermy? Norman Bates, anyone? Creeeepy.

Anyway, Calvin is enthusiastically making a trophy out of a buck he shot some years back, using a commercially available deer mannequin over which he will stretch the deer's actually hide. I had no idea it could be done that way. I always just assumed it was the actual deer head, bones and all.

Bones-and-all is how Chris Kemp is making a keepsake for Janie Rumm. Janie's dog Wonder died a while back, you see, and she wants a stuffed version of him to live with her forever. Chris specializes in this sort of thing -- i.e., creepy mementos for pet-owners -- and Janie is on hand to help him arrange the carcass in just the right pose.

Finally, there is Benoit Brossard, an insane old Quebecer who has an enormous collection of animals that he personally shot while on safari in Africa. One of his trophies, on display in his home, is the entire front half of a giraffe.

While "Lifelike" doesn't quite make fun of its subjects, it doesn't take them entirely seriously, either. Abecassis seems aware of these people's value as entertainment in addition to being genuinely fascinated by their obsessions. They all come across as likably odd people, even if they are have their dead pets freeze-dried for posterity.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13957&reviewer=247
originally posted: 03/09/06 19:15:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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