Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Project Nim

An experiment meant to explore the idea of language in chimpanzees became a landmark, and altogether unsettling study of nature vs. nurture is the focus of the solidly fascinating, if a bit nature television bound documentary Project Nim.  In 1973, Columbia University professor Herbert S. Terrence founded a subject that pitted a baby chimp under the care of an ordinary family to study the effects and progress of his ability to pick up on human language and communication.  Rescuing him, him being Nim from an Oklahoma research facility, separating him from his mother (in the first fairly traumatic scene of many) and putting him up in the care of a hippie mother in New York named Stephanie LaFarge, who bonded and raised the young chimp as if he were her own, including but not limited to breast feeding, sharing joints, and various mother-son Oedipal curiosities...the rationale was "it was the 70s."  What developed was a far more interesting, and more unsettling account of the various upheavals and human dramas at the center of the young ape, who was behaving as would be expected...playful, curious, tempestuous and dangerously unaware of his own strength.  Director James Marsh, using the same inventive and seamless precision he brought to his Academy Award winning tightrope-on-the-Twin Towers doc Man on Wire, infuses Project Nim with a gentle flow that melds archival footage, stills and reenactments in telling a portrait of a mad science project with enough pathos that plays slightly like an inter-species version of A Long Day's Journey Into Night.

The project, while constructed as a study of language and the barriers between chimps and humans, ultimately gained noteriety as a study of raising a wild animal as if it were human; the danger of project was the unfortunate and sad effect it left on Nim himself.  Being taken away from his mother at birth, and later taken away from LaFarge (a former student and lover of Terrence's), Nim was taken up by another comely student of the professor, and another part-time lover.  Traded off again before the project was over, there's an inevitable sense of doom not just on the poor monkey, but the folly of the people involved.  Nim's behavior grew more and more volatile-- the first glimpses of violence are seen as silliness (he was not fond of LaFarge's husband and liked to wreck his looming book collection), but become more and more severe as the primate is traded off, most of which is taken lightly by Terrence who has a books to publish, as well as press snapshots, Nim kind of did serve as the star of a messed-up version of An American Family.  It's even more unsettling that nearly every member of the project, outside of its creator, has more or less formally regretted it.  Even after its completion, and the conclusion by Terrence that the project was a failure, there's little remorse for the detrimental harm that may have been hoisted upon the now fully grown, and very strong Nim.

The last third of the film has an immediate gut punch as Nim is put back into the Oklahoma lab that he came from, caged like many of his peers, but unable to separate the multitude of maternal abandonment.  There's a respite of sorts and a bit of absurdity (a nice bit involving a clever lawyer) that almost saves the day, but ultimately the science motivated by the project is less interesting, and likely discredited, than the human story behind it which is what makes Marsh's twee but penetrating film special and sad.  B+

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