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February 10, 2012

Movies You Missed 25: Project Nim

Project-nimThis week in movies you missed: Once upon a time, a scientist decided to raise a chimpanzee just like a human child. Bad idea.

What You Missed

Call it the real-life version of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, except without the "rising" part. James Marsh's documentary retells the story of a radical experiment undertaken by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace in 1973: He wanted to find out if an ape could talk (via sign language, of course). The ape in question was named Nim Chimpsky — a pun on Noam Chomsky, who argued that humans alone are hard-wired to use language as a means of expression.

The film doesn't address the fascinating context of this experiment or the other attempts to prove that language isn't unique to humans (more info here). Based on Elizabeth Hess' biography of Nim, it focuses on what the experiment did to Nim himself — and how a bunch of well-meaning people, all eager to prove an ape could cross the human-animal divide, ended up doing some very cruel things.

At two weeks old, Nim was taken from his mother, flown across the country and placed in the home of Stephanie LaFarge, a rich Manhattan bohemian with seven kids and stepkids of her own. She breast-fed the chimp ("It was the '70s," her daughter explains) and doted on him like a permissive hippie mom until Terrace realized she wasn't doing much in the way of sign language instruction. (LaFarge says in an interview that words and closeness aren't compatible in her mind; to her, Nim was better off without language.)

Seeing his mistake, Terrace swept up Nim and installed him in a university-owned mansion with a new set of caretakers. So began the ape's strange coming-of-age odyssey, which would eventually take him from a luxurious brownstone to a world of cattle prods and hypodermic needles. Along the way, Nim would find many human nurturers and champions, but none of them could save him from a cage. He learned plenty of signs, but his chimp DNA was his destiny.

Why You Missed It

Perhaps you caught Project Nim when it played for one week at the Savoy Theater.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Project Nim was one of last year's most acclaimed documentaries for a reason. Director Marsh's previous effort was the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, and the story he tells here, using a mixture of interviews, archival stills and footage, and reenactments, is just as compelling. It's a good story on its own, and a must for anyone who cares about how humans treat animals.

I wasn't entirely crazy about the doc's slick stylistic packaging; call me old-fashioned, but I like it when reenactments are labeled, or at least easier to tell apart from real archival footage than they are here. The crew used VHS, Super 8 and other antiquated cameras, making the fake clips sometimes hard to spot.

But then, maybe I'm just not observant, because I couldn't tell that adult Nim in the reenactments was actually an Englishman in a chimp suit who specializes in impersonating apes. (The "Making of" featurette is worth watching just for surreal scenes of him playing ape out of the suit.)

Marsh's talking-head interviews with participants in Project Nim are remarkably candid and revealing, perhaps because those participants are already such self-analytical types. We get a full picture of the unscientific passions and jealousies involved in the experiment, in which some researchers were busy getting it on with each other in between sign-language sessions with Nim. More than once I got a Splice vibe from the whole endeavor.

Was the poor little ape one more casualty of the Swinging '70s? Or a fierce wild creature who simply proved untameable? Every viewer is likely to come away with a revised sense of the divide between human and not-human. Sometimes the film evokes "Fatal Attractions," the creepy Animal Planet show about people who persist in cuddling vipers and tigers as if they were human children. And sometimes (often, really) Nim seems more deserving of our empathy than the humans on screen.

Verdict: Are apes smarter than we think, or are we more like other primates than our pride will admit? Maybe we'll have to wait for the ape revolution to answer those questions, but Project Nim poses them with disturbing precision.

Other New Releases You May Have Missed

  • The Chameleon (Ellen Barkin stars in this fictionalized version of the true story of a French con man who pretended to be a missing Texan youth. A documentary about the same case drew acclaim at Sundance this year.)
  • Fireflies in the Garden (Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe and Ryan Reynolds in a Midwestern family drama)
  • Knuckle (documentary about the world of Travellers and bare-knuckle boxing)
  • The Rebound (Catherine Zeta-Jones gets it on with a younger man in this rom com.)
  • Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Long before there was YouTube, amateur audio recordings of noisy neighbors went "viral," as chronicled in this doc.)
  • The Song of Lunch (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman star in an adaptation of Christopher Reid's poem about ex-lovers meeting for a meal.)
  • The Sunset Limited (Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson star in this two-character HBO drama pitting a would-be suicide against a religious believer.)
  • Titanic II (You could wait to watch Titanic in 3-D, or you could see this 2010 sequel featuring a different boat and none of the original stars — for camp value, of course.)

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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