The small ape is recumbent, long hairy arms stretched behind his head. Blissfully relaxed. He wears a little diaper from which a cartoon plume of steam rises in a steady column. (Manners!) Two men gussied up as 18th-century French fops -- mincing manners, powdered wigs, coats, breeches -- approach, each vying for the ape's romantic attentions. The men quarrel. The ape lies there, indifferent to the gathering feud. Things turn ugly. The men decide to duel. With bananas.
In this bizarre tableau, anything goes. It's a bit of semi-controlled chaos, with the human players at the mercy of the creature's proclivities.
"We just let him do whatever the hell he wanted and worked around that," says David Zellner, laughing.
If the ape, a gibbon named Willis, chose to lie there, then that's how the scene would play, Zellner and his brother Nathan explain as they talk about "Fiddlestixx," their trio of short movies that center on a gibbon that doesn't really seem to know what's going on around him.
But so much is going on around the puzzled primate. Starring Willis and both brothers, the "Fiddlestixx" shorts detonate with searing DayGlo graphics, frenetic cutting and hallucinogenic hijinks in a crafty spoof of hackneyed sit-com conventions. They're spasmodic, crammed collages of left-field comedy, fast and crazy and very funny.
"We wanted to make something as overstimulating and seizure-inducing as possible," David says.
"It was just an excuse to play with a monkey," Nathan adds.
Both are laughing, David over a bottle of ginger kombucha tea, Nathan with a warm chai at Cherrywood Coffeehouse on East 381/2 Street. Outside it's grim and gray. Inside it's bright with ape talk.
Episode One of "Fiddlestixx" (watch them all at fiddlestixx.com ) will screen five times, Tuesday through Jan. 30, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This is the fifth time the Zellners have shown a movie at the prestigious festival. Over the years, the University of Texas alums have screened three shorts, including "Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane" and "Flotsam/Jetsam," and the feature "Goliath" at Sundance, a powerful platform to get their work noticed.
"They've been really great to us," David says. "We owe them a lot."
The brothers will couch-surf at various friends' places next week in Park City, including at the rental pad of Bryan Poyser, an Austin filmmaker whose feature "Lovers of Hate" is screening in Sundance's dramatic competition. (Two other Austin films, Amy Grappell's short documentary "Quadrangle" and Anthony Burns' feature "Skateland," are playing this year's festival.)
With its visual non sequiturs, vintage laugh tracks and canned audience applause, its gaudy props and psychedelic vibe, "Fiddlestixx" feels like a mash of '60s television shows "The Monkees," "Laugh-In" and "The Banana Splits." The episodes are exultantly sophomoric yet shrewdly knowing. Serious filmmakers, the Zellners are trying to get their next features financed in Los Angeles.
"This was an opportunity to do a total 180 from any attempts at sophistication," David says. "We wanted to go Dada with it. And stupid."
But that Dada stupidity is itself a form of sophistication in "Fiddlestixx," a name that feels absurd to even type. The films are squibs of sharp cultural commentary.
"Fiddlestixx" was financed by Atom Films, whose Web site atom.com showcases comedy shorts. The labor-intensive production wasn't cheap. The Zellners, who act in all of their movies, shot with two high-definition video cameras against a green screen at Austin Studios, then filled in the rest with computer wizardry.
Willis the gibbon, a dapper halo of fur girdling his wee face, was the most expensive element. They got the young ape from local animal wrangler Bobbi Colorado, who says she billed the filmmakers about $1,500 for a day's work. (Willis is a star: He was recently seen in the Jack Black comedy "Year One.")
Watching "Fiddlestixx" on your computer is one thing. It's something else entirely on the big screen, say the Zellners, who can't wait to show it large at Sundance.
"With all the colors and everything, it's like a thousand times more obnoxious," David says. "It's like a really sweet piece of candy that makes you feel gross after a couple of minutes."