'Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air': Marseille Review

Courtesy of FIDMarseille
Promising behind-the-headlines big-cat documentary is sunk by a lengthy "experimental" mid-section.

Debut feature-length work by British director Phillip Warnell, examining the bizarre true-crime case of New Yorker Antoine Yates, premiered in competition at the French festival.

In unfortunate contrast to the graceful tigers prowling its heart, Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air proves an ungainly hybrid of conventional documentary and more challengingly experimental elements. British director Phillip Warnell's debut feature-length effort is a particularly frustrating affair, as there's such promise in the stranger-than-fiction tale of Antoine Yates, the loquaciously charismatic New Yorker who in 2003 was found to be keeping a 500lb Bengal feline and a seven-foot alligator-like caiman as pets--alongside sundry other critters--in his sprawling Manhattan apartment.

But all but the most adventurous audiences will surely lose patience during the painfully protracted, 27-minute mid-section, in which the domestic circumstances of Yates' charges —"Ming" and "Al"—are elaborately approximated, to a soundtrack of street-noise and pseudo-philosophical verbiage. Theatrical prospects--at least outside the urban jungle of New York-- therefore look patchy, though there will doubtless be further festivals willing to bite following the picture's bow at Marseille, where it picked up the Prix Georges Beauregard.

Warnell strikes documentary gold in the shape of the fortyish Yates, whom we observe cruising his former 'hood, reminiscing about his brief sojourn as a flashy, unlikely focus of national media. Contemporary TV news reports provide brisk exposition on Yates's arrest and trial, which followed a near-fatal mauling encounter between Ming's fangs and his owner's leg. But many basic details of motivation, practicality and biography remain naggingly hazy throughout—not least the matter of how Yates funded the carnivores' legendary appetites. It becomes apparent, however, that Warnell is less interested in the specifics of Yates's case (previously dramatized on Animal Planet TV-show Fatal Attractions in 2010) than in deploying it as a launch-pad for airy musings on captivity, man's relationship to animals and much else besides.

This is verbalized via a poem by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (who collaborated with Warnell on the 2009 short Outlandish: Strange Foreign Bodies) and another by Hildur Gudnadottir, the Icelandic musician also responsible for the film's score. Gudnadottir reads her own work in preciously whispery, child-like tones which recall her more celebrated countrywoman Bjork, her strong accent rendering an already dense text ("fantastical fantasy face to face in ignorance: pure, cruel innocence") near-indecipherable. These ramblings accompany quasi-simulation of Yates's domestic arrangements—footage actually shot under controlled conditions in a British zoo—where we see a tiger (not Ming) and a caiman (not Al) in lonely solitude. But as we've been told that Yates could hardly ever leave his apartment because of his responsibility to the animals, any connection between Warnell's re-staging and the real circumstances is unavoidably and unhelpfully oblique.

This fatally over-extended interlude does at least finally come to a conclusion, before a coda which returns to the much stronger opening section's juxtaposition of 2003 footage and present-day material; even those who take a dim view of Yates's behavior will welcome his return to the spotlight. By this stage, however, the damage has been done and Ming of Harlem , shot on 16mm but projected in Marseille via digital, is confirmed as a self-conscious, excessively humorless exercise in boundary-blurring, burning only intermittently bright and fearfully asymmetrical.

Production companies: Big Other, Picture Palace Pictures, Michigan Films
Director: Phillip Warnell
Screenwriters: Phillip Warnell, Jean-Luc Nancy, Hildur Gudnadottir
Producers: Madeleine Molyneaux, Phillip Warnell
Executive producer:
Editors: Phillip Warnell, Chiara Armentano
Big Other Films, London

No Rating, 71 minutes