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.