Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Marsh’s Project Nim

Chimpanzees are animals and people are stupid. Nim’s story will illustrate both points. He was a chimp raised as human in hopes of fostering direct species-to-species communication by teaching him sign language during his formative years. Yet, what is a self-absorbed academic to do with a chimp that thinks he is human once the experiment ends? That is indeed the tricky part of James Marsh’s Project Nim (trailer here), a documentary profile of Columbia’s most famous chimp, which opens this Friday in New York.

At first, Nim was placed with a hippie foster mother who raised Nim along with her children. Unfortunately, she became possessive of Nim, deliberately sabotaging the research in order to keep him to herself. The fact that Nim increasingly ran amok through her home was of no never mind. Eventually, the project manager, Prof. Herbert Terrace, stepped in, removing Nim from her care.

Appropriating a large Riverdale (for non-New Yorkers, this is the nice section of the Bronx) estate owned by Columbia University, Terrace set up Nim and his keepers in style. During what were certainly Nim’s salad days, the chimp picked up a 120 word vocabulary, considerably more than most MSNBC on-air commentators. Though more stable, it was still a problematic environment, where the phrase “getting the chimp stoned” would not have been used as a euphemism. Nim’s rough-housing was also getting rougher. It was not his fault, it was just his nature. Not getting the results he hoped for, Terrace finally up and cancelled the program, leaving Nim in the custody of Dr. James Mahoney of NYU’s LEMSLIP, a chimp medical research facility. This would not be the end of Nim’s road though.

While animal rights undeniably lie at Project’s heart, the film does not let anyone off the hook, casting a jaundiced eye on the permissive academic climate and indulgent hippy lifestyle of the 1970’s. It also more than implies Terrace took advantage of his position, with respect to the female graduate students he supervised. It even presents ostensive animal rescuer Cleveland Amory as something of an irresponsible poser.

Ironically, Dr. Mahoney turns out one of the good guys in Project, despite the amusing Darth Vader introduction Marsh gives him. As a result, Project seems like it is shooting much straighter than the vast majority of documentaries filing in and out of theaters these days. Though Marsh definitely brings a keen cinematic style to bear on the material, it still feels disappointingly conventional when compared to the electrifying genre defiance of Man on Wire, which should already be acknowledged as a modern classic (an admittedly high bar to clear on a regular basis).

Indeed, Marsh is a great filmmaker who also shows first class narrative chops in the best installment of the Red Riding trilogy. However, his strategy of focusing so squarely on Nim as his POV character will largely shape viewers’ responses. If you left your heart in the primate house, Project is the film for you, but more cerebral audiences will be frustrated when the film only skims the surface of its larger epistemological questions. A good, solid, but not quite great documentary, Project Nim opens this Friday (7/8) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.