In retrospect, it’s appropriate that one of Vine’s most prolific creators was a gorilla who made alternately goofy and wistful videos. As popular as the app was, however, the transition from making six-second clips to a feature film was always going to be a tricky proposition. That Sylvio Bernardi – Simply Sylvio to his friends and followers – pulled it off is a testament to the creative team behind him. Writer/directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, along with co-writer/producer Meghan Doherty, had faith in the ability of a gorilla with an expressionless mask to carry a feature on his hairy shoulders, and the result – 2017’s Sylvio – speaks for itself, even if Sylvio cannot.
While the Vine incarnation of Sylvio was partial to sight gags and simian-centric pop-culture parodies like Reservoir Apes, Showgorillas, and Silverback Mountain, Birney, Audley, and Doherty chose the character study route. Rather than settle for easy jokes, they take their time to explore Sylvio’s corner of the world, establishing what a typical day in the life of a Baltimore-based debt-collecting gorilla is like. In his button-down shirt, pants, tie, and ubiquitous sunglasses, Sylvio tries his best to fit into the corporate culture at Chester Debt, but his closest relationship is with the potted plant in his cubicle.
At home, Sylvio’s primary creative outlet is a puppet show called “The Quiet Times with Herbert Herpels,” in which a bald, middle-aged man serenely does mundane things. He’s been at it so long, in fact, that he’s up to episode 615 (shades of Silvio’s 800+ Vines) when his boss takes him off phones and puts him on house visits, presuming the sight of a gorilla on the doorstep would inspire any debtor to pay up. By a quirk of fate, Sylvio’s first assignment is Al Reynolds (played by Audley), who broadcasts The Afternoon Show with Al Reynolds live from his basement and puts Sylvio on as a guest when he’s mistaken for a “mystery juggler.” It quickly becomes apparent the gorilla is no such thing when he clumsily drops everything he tries to juggle, but he’s an instant hit with Al’s viewers, inspiring a recurring segment entitled “What’s the Ape Gonna Break?” Thus begins an unlikely partnership that is not without its ups and downs.
The same could be said of the collaboration between the film’s directors. Before Sylvio, Albert Birney made a series of idiosyncratic student shorts and music videos, culminating in 2010 with the feature The Beast Pageant, co-directed with Jon Moses. A surreal allegory about an office drone (played by Moses) trapped in a mechanized, consumerist society who encounters all manner of unnatural creatures when he ventures out into the natural world, The Beast Pageant is a far cry from the quartet of mumblecore-style films Kentucker Audley directed and starred in while becoming a fixture in the films of fellow travelers Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, and Alex Ross Perry. Where their sensibilities meet is the treatment of Sylvio Bernardi as a real character – not a guy in a gorilla costume doing shtick, but an actual gorilla who only wants to share his art with the world. In this way, Silvio is a stand-in for every outsider artist who has felt the sting of compromise or regretted selling out, especially if it meant being typecast as something they’re not (or would prefer not to be).
Since Sylvio’s premiere at the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival (four months after the character’s last Vine, made in response to the app’s imminent deactivation), Birney has busied himself with the animated adventures of Tux and Fanny, which he advances one minute at a time, compiling the first 80 installments into a feature in 2019. (At present, he’s halfway through the sequel.) He and Audley (who’s logged more time in front of the camera in recent years) also re-teamed for Strawberry Mansion, which debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is getting a general release this week.
With its story of a dream auditor (played by Audley) whose latest case brings him into contact with an array of strangely costumed creatures in and around the titular residence, Strawberry Mansion is the natural extension of The Beast Pageant’s hallucinatory odyssey and Sylvio’s late-arriving dream sequence (one of the film’s few flights of fancy). What all these projects have in common is a charmingly handmade quality to their costumes and effects, as well as an openness to embracing the strange and finding beauty in the ordinary. Since that’s the message Sylvio Bernardi ultimately wants to impart – even if he has to use a computerized voice synthesizer to put it into words – one can hope their work will continue to find an appreciative audience for a long time to come.