2011 Top 10 — Number 10
PROJECT NIM (James Marsh, USA)
Someone comes up to you and suggests performing and funding a scientific study of raising a chimpanzee as a human being and teaching him human language. If your immediate reaction is “yeah, that sounds interesting, here’s the money,” you might find PROJECT NIM lacking. If your immediate reaction is that of a normal person and of the functional-“all” until quite recently — that is, you look to the side, make a polite excuse and slowly back away — PROJECT NIM is a brilliant, pitch-black comedy about just such a 1970s hippie-science experiment, and how some forms of animal research really are about man’s view of man, to the detriment of both man and beast.
Marsh, whose previous documentary was the Oscar-winner MAN ON WIRE, isn’t terribly interested in the science of the Project Nim experiment itself — which had to do with efforts to rebut Noam Chomsky’s theory that language properly-understood is a uniquely human attribute, hard-wired in us, absent in animals. The chimp, taken from his mother at birth and kept away from all other chimps until he was 5 years ago, was named Nim Chimpsky, a fact that is in the film and which point I “got,” but it is not explained in the film and I don’t think Chomsky is even explicitly mentioned (I was distressed some years ago to learn that there is a subject in the world on which I’m a hard-core Chomskyite). The experiment’s trajectory also seems a little telescoped — lead researcher Herbert Terrace acknowledges the experiment has failed rather suddenly, though one suspects the motivation was other.
But the experiment itself is really just a Maguffin, or the occasion for the particulars of this hilarious sick joke, which (YAY!!) comes out on DVD and Blu next week. What Marsh is interested in, and he succeeds magnificently, is an Errol Morris-like portrait of human folly, human nature and how we anthropomorphize animals, and do much else, to play out our own ideas and agendas. The first words in my notes are “Errol Morris, minus Glass score [instead] more conventional strumming.” Indeed, you could almost say NIM was the second-best Morris comedy of 2011 (hint … hint …). Marsh has dramatic, portentous title cards to divide up the tale, cuts to interview subjects in an eccentrically-lit stage, and also uses some re-creations to fill in narrative gaps where archival footage doesn’t exist (though there is plenty of such footage). The Morris-aping (sorry) does, however, get a little much in the lengthy show-offy pans that introduce characters when they give their sit-down interviews today.
The other film that went through my mind a lot watching this one was GRIZZLY MAN, also about people (or in that case, one person) who don’t respect the difference between man and animals. In one of Herzog’s many unforgettable scenes, an Alaska Native says incredulously that while his people have lived beside the grizzlies forever, Treadwell “tried to become a bear, and we know you can’t do that.” PROJECT NIM is about that same sin in its opposite form, the one preferred by our technological materialist society — man wanting to make an animal into a man (curiously, the animals themselves never initiate these projects). While there’s plenty to laugh at in the Herzog film (and I did some), it was hard to really let loose because we knew right from the start that this folly ended with the grisly (sorry) deaths of two people. In PROJECT NIM, the stakes are a little lower.
While Project Nim failed in its planned efforts to make a beast like a man, PROJECT NIM succeeds in showing ways in which the experiment proved unintentionally how Pan troglodytes may actually be wiser than Homo sapiens. Man can will himself to bracket the obvious (in this case, “chimps aren’t people”) when it is philosophically inconvenient, even in the face of such apparently scientific realities as a chimpanzee’s strength being about five times that of a same-sized man. This fact of nature results in Nim innocently ripping people’s faces and arms during “kid” play because (as my Homo sapiens parents said often of me) “he doesn’t know his own strength.” We see the scars 30 years later. Not just the physical ones and not just on the Homo sapiens.
The reasons for the bracketing this particular “obvious” vary as film progresses — Romanticism, scientism, love, sexual jealousy and other forms of intra-homosapiens rivalry. Terrace is the villain of the piece, chewing up and spitting out women (“researchers”) as if he’s Newt Gingrich. One of the exes explicitly says he used the experiment as a power move. I knew this film was special early on when we learn that Stephanie, the first women tasked with raising Nim, would sometimes breast-feed him. In a contemporary interview, she snickers, “it was the 70s.” Other ways in which the researchers raised Nim in between the (very sloppy, says Wife #2 … er … Researcher #2) sign-language lessons were all about projecting the Zeitgeist onto a helpless baby/beast. “We want him to defy expectation and authority” (really … that has SO much to do with animal behavior) and “words are the enemy … I cared less about language than about [Nim] as his own unique self.” Yes, it was the 70s … nurture was in, nature was out, biology wasn’t destiny.
Even Bob Ingersoll, the Homo sapiens who comes across best in terms of wanting to do right by Nim, is a hippie-type who shares marijuana joint with the beast and turns him into a bit of a pothead. There’s even a short sequence — it had me in the aisles — in which a lawyer tries to liberate Nim by bringing a lawsuit (in loco simians?) “Can a chimp have legal standing if he was raised as a human?” is the kind of question only a lawyer could ask — on so many fronts. The cosmic irony is that while Nim isn’t picking up human language, he also is “not working on his chimp nature,” as one person says, and he does become man-like in other ways, learning to become manipulative of humans, how to play mommy against daddy or vice versa. And like many another human child, the subject of a nasty divorce/custody dispute. When Nim is reunited with Terrace years later and tries to hug him, it’s lump-in-the-throat stuff; when he sees Stephanie again … not so much.
While the first 1/2 to 2/3 of PROJECT NIM are explicitly about the experimenters, after their failure, the film becomes more of a tragic picaresque biography, following Nim as he gets passed through more hands than Madame de…’s earrings. Since some anthropomorphism probably is unavoidable with chimps, I feel comfortable saying it IS a tragedy needlessly inflicted on Nim. Chimps are just enough like man to be damaged by Our trying to make them in Our image, and for us to be tempted into the attempt. (You can’t even imagine this story with a dog, even though he is “Man’s Best Friend” and has lived with man far longer and more intimately than any primates have.) Nim becomes a piece of collateral damage who has become too man-like in ways other than language to be a chimp (even for experimental use), while his 70s-ignored biological teleology means he isn’t a man either. Even though the back part of PROJECT NIM is a bit sentimental and not laugh-a-minute as what went before, it dovetails with the comedy in showing an effed-up nurture clashing with brutal, undemocratic, unchosen nature, and nature having to win out to the limited extent it can. Nim has filled his biological destiny, but only in the most needlessly painful and radically imperfect manner possible.