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Project Nim

By Philip Martin

This article was published September 30, 2011 at 3:42 a.m.

— Project Nim almost opened in Little Rock a few weeks ago, on the same Friday as Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

If it had, it would have been a pleasant confluence, for when I first caught a glimpse of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes trailer some months ago I, for a moment, mistook it for a Project Nim trailer - I’m almost sure it had been cut to convey that impression. I’m almost sure that whatever specialists carved the trailer out of the tide of footage they were given to work with isolated the same question that provoked James Marsh’s documentary: What makes apes essentially and irrevocably different from us?

Both movies revolve around experiments designed to bridge the gap between human and animals - and in both movies those experiments go horribly awry. In both movies audiences will be drawn to rooting for the primates rather than their human “betters,” but Project Nim has the depressing disadvantage of being a work of nonfiction. Unless you’re tremendously naive, you know going in its simian hero is doomed.

His name - bestowed by humans as a joke to mock the work of the noted linguist (and political gadfly) Noam Chomsky - was Nim Chimpsky. In the 1970s, not long after he was born in an Oklahoma lab, he was ripped from his mother’s arms and delivered to Manhattan, to a Columbia University psychology professor who wondered if an ape could be taught human language.

This professor, Herbert Terrace, delivered Nim to an Upper West Side family, who dressed him in clothes and attempted to raise him as a child. As bizarre as this may seem to us, given the temper of the times, it mightn’t have seemed so weird. The patriarch was a “rich hippie poet” with seven children and a wife, Stephanie LaFarge, who’d studied with Terrace and bought into what are presented here as morally vacant theories.

Marsh catches up with one member of the family, Jenny Lee, who was 13 years old at the time Nim came to live with her family. She remembers accepting the chimp fairly easily, and that her mother even breast-fed him during his stint with the family.

“He needed diapers, he needed bottles, he needed feedings,” Lee says. “And it was odd he was a chimp. But at the same time, there was kind of a normalcy about it in that he was just included in the family right away.”

While his human siblings went to school, Nim was taught American Sign Language by Columbia researchers. And he learned - as many as 125 signs. But he could never get his biting under control and so he was sent away. He went through a series of caretakers before ending up back in Oklahoma, where he became “friends” with a long haired graduate student whom he learned to ask for dope, signing “stone smoke time now.”

Marsh, whose 2008 film Man on Wire was a coolly elegant exploration of the human will to power, doesn’t seem quite as masterful this time out. He cues us a little too quickly to the careless villainy of Nim’s human handlers, and while, in verite fashion, he never speaks on camera, his editing leaves little room for ambiguity. Nim could be manipulative and vicious but what should we have expected? He is a chimpanzee, and that’s his nature. He’s only interesting to a limited extent.

The human interviewees, on the other hand, are a diverse and sometimes creepy lot, all very willing to explain themselves, all saying too much. It’s clear they took Nim for whatever they wanted him to be - surrogate child, boon companion, even romantic rival. They projected their own inner psychological dramas on him. And they also loved him, some of them, in their wracked, imperfect way.

This could have been a better film, were it made by someone more willing to push aside the messy human muck and concentrate on the scientific questions raised, but it would have been an entirely different kind of movie, less gratifying to those of us who like to feel outraged.

No doubt there is an epistemological limit to how well we can ever know another consciousness - even if that consciousness happens to be human. Project Nim succeeds as theater, as entertainment, but it doesn’t really attempt what Terrace tried, in his admittedly morally clumsy way. What is the light in those feral eyes and what does it mean? Can we ever hope to know?

Project Nim 86 Cast: Documentary Director: James Marsh Rating: PG-13, for language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images Running time: 93 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 09/30/2011

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