Talking Movies

August 9, 2011

Project Nim

If you see only one film about a chimpanzee that’s smarter than your average primate this weekend then make it this one.

James Marsh, who’s becoming a regular Werner Herzog in alternating acclaimed documentaries with features, returns to the 1970s milieu of his previous hit Man on Wire. The setting is again New York but this time the dare-devil antics are intellectual not acrobatic and the span being traversed is not the gap between the Twin Towers but between the human and chimpanzee species. Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee baby taken from his mother in 1973 for a Columbia University experiment. Marsh mixes archive footage and still photos with a number of interviews he’s conducted with some of the principal players in the experiment which asked can a chimp, if raised as human, be taught to communicate in sign language? Marsh’s staged reconstructions and overly dramatic pans away from his talking heads are unnecessary, there’s drama enough in the story without inserting the visual clichés of 1970s thrillers. Startlingly enough the relevant clichés are Woody Allen’s 1970s films as nearly everyone involved was sleeping with everyone else, while maintaining that this in no way affected an experiment originally intended to provide a stable family environment for Nim…

Dr Herb Terrace, a psychologist, gives the baby Nim to his ex-lover Stephanie Lafarge, a former graduate student in Oedipal psychoanalysis, who promptly breastfeeds said chimpanzee before moving on to investigating his masturbatory habits and getting him high on marijuana. Nim’s lack of progress in learning sign language sees Terrace hire Laura, a linguist, as a teacher. Hardly a surprise given that Stephanie, obviously railing against her poet husband, reveals that she thinks word are bad and that Nim lost his essence by having language foisted on him… Bob and Joyce, another couple, arrive to help in the teaching, later joined by Renee, but as Nim grows up he becomes more dangerous and Terrace abruptly terminates the experiment. It’s radically unclear from the film who collated the data, or indeed why Terrace got all the credit. Project Nim loses its way in dealing with the endless post-experiment life of Nim. Sent back to the Oklahoma facility where he was born he is treated as another dude by hippie psychologist Bob Ingersoll, who eventually forms an unlikely alliance with British veterinarian Mahoney to give Nim the special attention he deserves.

While it’s heartbreaking to see an animal being made exceptional only to be casually discarded and cast back with other chimpanzees who now regard him as a freak, Marsh forces the pathos with continual emphasis on Nim’s humanity. Nim could never remain with humans as he always remained a wild animal, a point proved by his vicious attack on Renee in which he gashed a whole thru her cheek, and then attempted to re-open it months later, from pure instinct. The true fascination of this film is the conflict in Nim between nature and nurture, to wit – the experiment. Terrace concluded (all visual evidence to the contrary) that Nim never learnt language but was merely a beggar using signs. This seems to ignore the work of Eric Berne who posited in Games People Play that all social situations were transactional, one interpretation of which is that everyone always wanted something. By which yardstick Nim mastered language’s ultimate purpose perfectly…

Columbia University won’t thank James Marsh for it but this is a fascinating study of how science can be derailed by the human factor.


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