Friday, July 22, 2011

Project Nim

James Marsh's "Project Nim" has admirably incredible access to the saga of Nim Chimpsky, and raises some interesting questions, making it an easy early favorite for Best Documentary as well as a film that a lot of non-documentary-junkies will pick up and enjoy. However, in my opinion, it's far less sweeping and engrossing than Marsh's tremendous previous documentary "Man on Wire," and more a movie, despite some fumbling of style and technique, to appreciate than to love.

The subject of the film was first brought to my attention when I was milling about in a bookstore. It sounded pretty lame (what with the name they gave the chimpanzee in question) and I never looked into it more. However, when a strong filmmaker puts a focus on something, one is given incentive to take notice. "Project Nim" chronicles events that really seem to play out a lot better visually anyways.

Nim was a chimp who was wrenched from his mother when he was young. Used in an experiment by an extremely controlling professor, Nim was given to a family to be raised as a human being and to be taught sign language in the hopes that he could put sentences together. However, the professor didn't see what he was getting the chimp into, as the mother Stephanie was less interested in furthering the process of the experiment and more interested in raising the chimp as a part of her vibrant family. Her notion of parenthood seems a little perverted, though, since she both breast-fed and supplied alcohol and marijuana to her simian charge. The whole situation was bizarre, and apparently detrimental to both the family (only two of its many members allowed themselves to be interviewed) and the experiment itself. After a more specialized sign language teacher Laura came into the mix (whom the professor desires, along with Stephanie previously), the professor became inclined to move Nim and the observation to an exurban Columbia University mansion and a classroom. This is where he stayed until he became more and more strong and less and less compatible with human beings.

The film, in its later passages about which I will not go into detail, shines a light on how we think of "animal cruelty": once people anthropomorphize, they start to think differently about the "feelings" of that particular animal. If we're going to think about one case like that, it's only fair to think about all other animals the same way. It gets a little complicated, and justice can't really be ever served. Despite the fact that the experiment yielded results about how manipulative chimps can be, this examination was never really a good idea, and it ended up causing a lot more harm it seems than benefit.

"Project Nim" doesn't sustain itself well for 93 minutes, and it ends up at some point seeming like a bunch of talking heads over endless footage. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I can't say my attention was held from beginning to end. Plus, Marsh makes certain elements that fit well in "Man on Wire," such as the dramatic re-enactments, feel precious in a bad way. Nonetheless, it's a decent success, and will surely appeal to at least some audiences. B

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