First impressions of Zoo Cain tend to be visceral and vivid. “Something overtook me. It was like a magnetic attraction,” says a gray-haired woman in a spacious room with pink lilies. “‘Wow, look at this duck,’” a fellow with a weathered face says he thought to himself, watching Zoo turn up outside somewhere in 20-below weather and start sharpening a bunch of colored pencils. A blonde woman deems Zoo “beyond any sort of category.” Meanwhile, we intercut with rainbow-colored Chuck Close-ish squares; busts of Jesus and a cartoon spaceman; an apartment’s walls covered with collages of cut-up magazines and license plates, a bicycle suspended in a huge ring. And then, we see Zoo, a shaggy, Dude-like figure, descending his art-laden stairwell and into the snow.
So opens Peace, Love & Zoo, Reginald Groff’s documentary portrait of Zoo, riotously nonconventional artist and longtime stalwart of Portland’s recovery community. Groff’s through-line follows Zoo’s struggle with cancer and his pursuit of romantic love, but paint and colored pencils are constant motifs along the way. “Color him exuberant,” we read of Zoo, in a Press Herald headline. And indeed, Zoo, in the film’s framing and kaleidoscopic footage, adds a lot of color to the world.
We watch bearded, beatific Zoo draw or paint, we see his artifacts (his splattered red and blue shoes, his Technicolor pickup, his rainbow circles on the ceiling), and hear about his bio through the words of friends, daughter, ex-wife, and those he’s sponsored: living on Park Street in the 1970s with fellow art students; his youth of partying, depression, and addiction; his latter-day two decades of sobriety; and his benevolent presence in the recovery community. The interviewees’ universal ardor establishes up front just how much a force Zoo is in these circles, and Groff, whose own rapport with Zoo is clear in the footage, invites us into the legend and phenomenon.
Courtesy of Reginald Groff.
We get Zoo in myriad action: Wearing a teal blazer and fitting furniture into his truck (“It’s like a collage,” he says). Making an impromptu floor sculpture of tools and pieces of license plate. Setting up a gallery show in Mechanics Hall; dancing to the Substitutes; sitting at a table of his art on Congress for First Friday. And so Groff’s film is also a portrait of a certain Portland, and of certain bohemian ethos, which Mercedes Mehling’s editing makes exuberant in its psych-rock soundtrack, slo-mo footage of Zoo dancing at Bubba’s, and overlaid FX of paint-splatter.
Especially affecting are the testimonials of those who have struggled with addiction, and who with visibly radiant gratitude credit their recovery to Zoo. Margo Walsh relates how, after completing rehab thanks to Zoo, she founded Maine Works, a staffing company that connects vulnerable workers to construction jobs. We join Zoo at Maine Med as he visits August Murphy, a cystic fibrosis in-patient in recovery, and brings her a mini-AA meeting; her warmth for him is spontaneous and luminous. The cumulative interviews make tangible what one friend of Zoo’s calls “the ripple effect of recovery,” of how transformative and far-reaching even a small kindness can be.
Groff’s affectionate tribute paints a man whose kindnesses are big. It’s easy to be drawn into feeling some of his gentle but relentless optimism, his big-heartedness, his gratitude for simply being around to splatter some color on the planet. Before before he starts his chemo, Zoo pauses, smiling, in opening a jar of bright red paint. “Now that’s the stuff,” he says appreciatively. “I feel pretty damn good.”
“Peace, Love & Zoo,” a film by Reginald Groff | Screens at Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St., Portland | March 30 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. | www.facebook.com/peacelovezoo