Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Caitln's Review of Project Nim

Of Chimps and Chumps by Caitlin Murphy

Chimpanzees are creepy. Cute sure, but creepy too. With 98.7% of their DNA identical to humans, they’re a bit too close for our “aren’t we so darn special” comfort. Intellectually, we know that we’re animals, but deep down I doubt most of us fully believe it. Perhaps not surprisingly, Project Nim, a documentary that recounts a famous chimpanzee study, is more about the human incompetence, self-absorption and delusion involved in conducting the study, than its supposed animal subject. Basically, there’s a lot going on in that 1.3% DNA difference – and it ain’t all pretty.

Directed by James Marsh (of Man on Wire renown), Project Nim chronicles an elaborate experiment conducted in the 1970’s at Columbia University, under the ‘leadership’ of Herb Terrace (a walking, talking argument against tenure). The point was to determine whether a chimpanzee (in this case, the cleverly called, Nim Chimpsky) could acquire language if it were raised as a human child. Though Nim definitely makes progress, and clearly communicates with his teachers, it’s more communication in the sense of sharing, interacting. His word (sign) acquisition is impressive, but the sentences he puts together are largely variations on or shufflings of ME EAT FRUIT NOW. Terrace himself later conceded that from watching the footage it was clear Nim wasn’t really ever seeking to express; he was mostly ‘aping’ for his teachers, providing what they so eagerly sought from him – validation.

There are a few distinct acts to Project Nim which cover the major chapters of the chimp’s 26-year life. In the first of these, Nim is ‘adopted’ from a research institution and brought to live with Terrace’s colleague (and former lover – a recurring theme in the film) Stephanie LaFarge, who raises Nim as one of her own children, going so far as to breast-feed him; as her daughter quips in recollection – “it was the 70s.” It certainly was. Later, Nim is transferred to a university-owned sprawling estate, and we see Herb and his lovely, young assistant drive up its winding driveway (at which point I leaned over to my film companion to complain that we were born in the wrong era). The rest of the film recounts Nim’s fate after the experiment is abandoned: he is returned to the institute he came from, then transferred to an animal testing facility, and finally adopted by a ranch where he lives out the rest of his days.

Though Nim is interesting to watch (for some reason most compellingly when he himself interacts with a different species, a cat), Marsh of course knew that the human behaviours in this story would be most revealing. The various personal agendas and human dramas are clear, and often involve pretty base drives – wanting to fuck, challenge, or compete. You can smell the marijuana and taste the brownies, as Terrace et al deny that their inter-personal relations would have had any impact on the scientific rigor of the study. Mm-hmm. Terrace, an obvious letch (complete with comb-over) enjoys the excuse to be around young, female assistants, but becomes a classic absentee father to Nim – showing up for milestones and photo ops, but largely uninterested in the day to day. The fact that dope-smoking, Dead-head, Bob Ingersoll is the one who works hardest to ensure Nim’s well-being in the latter part of his life – after the publicity and attention are long gone – reveals that it’s those who don’t want anything from you, only want for you, who will always be your best allies.

For the talking heads portion of the documentary, the human subjects are interviewed separately, seated in the same neutral, grey back-dropped, cavernous space – basically, taken out of their elements. Marsh seems to be mimicking the observational eye of scientific study – the camera often makes slow pan and dolly movements over the subjects as they sit silently – and the effect is more than a little eerie. Because the study on Nim was so unique, it was heavily documented which ensured a lot of footage and photography for Marsh to work from (it didn’t hurt either that Terrace was a bit of a media whore), but the director is also known for rampant use of re-creation that he never explicitly signals. You are meant to lose track of the distinction between ‘actual’ and invented footage, as the film moves quite seamlessly between the two.

Marsh’s previous film, Man on Wire (2008), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, told the story of Phillipe Petit’s 1974 illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Clearly, the director is interested in examining human ambitions – not only where they take us, but how they shape us. Ultimately, Man on Wire strikes me as a far superior film to Project Nim, more compelling and complex, though I’m not sure why and would have to revisit it. In very basic ways, Man on Wire is just a more flattering portrait of human endeavour; despite Petit’s defiance and arrogance, his motivation was admirable, efforts herculean, and his ultimate accomplishment stunning.

The very word Project in the title of the film, as positioned next to a proper name, points to Marsh’s major interest here, and it’s not really our connection to chimpanzees. The film is largely a study in human failure to imagine anything beyond its immediate use and appeal to us, our failure to abide the paradox of connection and separation. It’s a narcissism for which we pay increasing costs. In its broadest appeal, Project Nim asks what it means to need others – whatever their kind – and use them for our own interests or gains. The film repeatedly tells us that Nim’s favourite word was ‘play’; though it doesn’t explicitly state it, the film also reveals that the humans’ favourite word is ‘me’.

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