Thursday, December 15, 2011

Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)

James Marsh, director of 2008's spellbinding, playful documentary Man on Wire, initially presents Project Nim, the story of a mid'-'70s language acquisition experiment on a chimpanzee, with a similar sense of wonder and magic. The baby chimp, though harshly removed from his mother, finds warmth and love from the people who handle him, and photographs and archival footage of his bulbous eyes, too big for the head that has not yet grown into them, too cute to handle. Every breakthrough of communication feels like a triumph, with every word of sign language Nim learns opening new possibilities not merely in linguistic study but for fundamental questions about nature vs. nurture, the mental potential of other species, and more.

Soon, however, Project Nim becomes something else entirely. Marsh shifts his focus from the late chimpanzee to those who came into contact with the animal as what initially seemed a straightforward study spiraled wildly out of control. The basic structure of the experiment soon falls apart, and those in charge of it try to fix the situation by taking steps that essentially invalidate any data gathered. Further ethical violations turn the entire procedure into a farce, with more than one female member engaging in trysts with the NYU professor who created the study, hippie assistants giving Nim beer and weed, and the original caretaker and primary teacher losing it and obsessing over Nim's sexual identity instead of teaching him language.

"It was the '70s," laughs the daughter of that woman as a means of justification, still in disbelief over the whole situation decades later. Even when new assistants come in to handle Nim, their initial dedication to more scientific behavior soon finding an inconsistent balance of analytical study and over-attached frolicking. The researchers all say the goal was to raise Nim as if he were a human child, but Nim is treated like a fascinating aberration from the start. The head of the project, Herbert Terrace, later concluded that the experiment had been a failure, that chimpanzees could only use sign language for basic wants, not real communication, but it doesn't take a qualified researcher to spot the flaws in that conclusion when Nim is raised just to use language to get things.

People fail Nim in various ways, be it Stephanie going crazy over Oedipal complexes and necessitating removal from her home or Terrace not anticipating the full danger a growing chimp poses to people, forcing the isolated creature to be mercilessly dumped in a primate holding facility that even its former employees described as a prison. Marsh captures waves of grief and outrage in his subjects, their anguish at losing what feels like a family member never so overwhelming that one can forget all of them have kept Nim from his true family all his life. But Nim has a clear effect on everyone, and even those considered villains by some of the others reveal a clear regret over their actions. Marsh introduces an animal tester who bought out the ailing chimp facility where Nim gets sent with a glacial camera shot that presents the man as some kind of supervillain, but he immediately speaks of hating the cruelty of his job with a passion.

"You had to be true of heart," says one handler of working with primates. "If you had dark places in you, they'd know it and they wouldn't like you." Marsh underscores the irony, and the accuracy, of that statement by bringing out his subjects' dark places as they were exposed by Nim, with even the most good-natured of people committing some clear error in dealing with the chimp. The director uses these various character blemishes to craft an elegy for a beloved but mistreated creature, something that brought love and pain into the lives of those who knew him. Marsh has a wealth of archival footage, but his signature use of fractured recreations and ethereal tracking shots around his subjects, simply observing silent talking heads, continues to be an effective, elegant means of generating a connection to the usual banality of filmed interviews. It also has the effect of turning the tables on the observers, now poring over them looking for intriguing data as they watch the roaming camera with mild discomfort at the surveillance. Like Nim, they aren't always so charming, and Marsh is no more objective a researcher than they. But he sees the genuine passion they have for Nim, and while that doesn't forgive the strange, sad life of one chimpanzee, it does find a closure the interviewees never saw in their all-too-short interactions with the touching creature.

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