James Marsh's fascinating doc tries to understand people trying to understand a chimp
Credit: Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY - If you know me, or if you're a regular reader, you may be aware that I dig monkeys. I'm a sucker for greeting cards with monkeys, stuffed monkeys and, under the right circumstances, I enjoy a good monkey-driven piece of cinema.
At this moment, though, I'm feeling a bit guilty for my simian fascination and I'm definitely regretting any jokes I might have made about someday dreaming of having my own monkey-butler.
I can't guarantee that the guilt will last very long. At the Sundance Film Festival, you never lack for films to generate guilt and I may have turned my attentions to the environment, the Middle East or gender repression by the time you read the review.
But in this moment, I'm all too aware that it's hard out there for a chimp.
If that were the only message of James Marsh's new documentary "Project Nim," that would probably be enough. But Marsh's follow-up to the Oscar-winning "Man on Wire" is more than just a story about the way humans treat animals, the way we express our power over the weak and the way we impress human values upon creatures who have no use for or understanding of our particular version of domestication.
"Project Nim" is a gripping animal biopic that takes audiences on a journey that begins with laugher, amusement and bemusement and ends, at least in the case of several viewers around me, with tears. It's a gracefully crafted documentary and I suspect it will play well for audiences on a variety of levels.
More thoughts on "Project Nim" after the break...
"Project Nim" begins in 1973 with Columbia Professor Herbert Terrace's idea to bring up a chimpanzee in an exclusively human environment, to raise the chimp as a child, teach the chimp to use sign language and to generally push the extremes of the "nurture" side of the "nature vs. nurture" argument. To that end, Herb took Nim away from his mother as an infant and moved him into a ritzy Upper West Side apartment to be brought up by Stephanie LaFarge as part of her already unsteady blended family.
The study is scientifically flawed on a number of levels, but the major problem is that with media-obsessed absentee Herb and anything-goes, no-limits hippie Stephanie, Nim was cursed with the unsteadiest background imaginable for human development. As Nim gets passed from one surrogate parent to another, gets moved from one home to another, watches one teacher after another depart for reasons stemming from human inconstancy and frailty, he responds in a way similar to how any confused product of a broken home would respond. There's certainly a layer of "Project Nim" that's about the way humans parent their own children.
Except that Nim isn't a child. He's a chimp and much of "Project Nim" focuses on the bafflement expressed by a team of supposedly educated people when they realize that a young chimp might not develop in the same way as a young child.
The first third of "Project Nim" is quite funny. Nim was an adorable little chimp and no matter how puerile it may sound, if somebody shows you a chimpanzee in a leisure suit, you're going to laugh.
But more of the laughter comes from the sheer folly that all involved brought to this project. Marsh has all of the principles from the project available for on-camera interviews and their lack of self-awareness, more than 30 years after the project began, is astounding. They're an amazing assortment of characters, starting with Professor Terrace, who barely blinks in admitting his tendency to hire attractive assistants and eventually bed them, setting a backdrop of sexual promiscuity that would contribute to the instability of Nim's upbringing. We also chuckle, at least for a while, at LaFarge's embarrassingly laissez faire approach to parenting her new "child" and a level of anthropomorphizing that goes from inoffensively silly (the aforementioned monkey leisure suit) to eventually dangerous.
Watching "Project Nim," I repeatedly flashed back to Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," another film about the sad consequences of reading a whole catalogue of human behaviors onto a wild animal simply because of isolated familiar traits. There are obvious differences that contribute to making "Project Nim" even more tragic in places. To begin with, Tim Treadwell was a dilettante, while the folks associated with Project Nim were empirically brilliant, even if it didn't show in their execution. Also, you don't have to believe in evolution to recognize that chimpanzees are a lot more like people than bears are, so the anthropomorphizing is easier to understand, but its consequences are as well. And finally, speaking of consequences, if you slip up around a mammoth bear, the bear will just eat you. If you screw up a juvenile chimp, the chimp is the one likely to get hurt.
[Oddly, as often as I thought about "Grizzly Man," I thought even more frequently about "Gremlins." People like to start with something cute and we like to think that because we can read love in big watery eyes and a few reassuring speech-like communications and then when animals become animalistic, we get confused. We're not ready for mogwai and we're probably not ready for monkey either. If the first half of "Project Nim" is about treating a chimp as a child, the second half is about how you handle a chimp who has been raised as a child, but remains a chimp.]
Marsh combines his awkwardly honest talking heads with an amazing wealth of archival footage, both images and home movies, of Nim's upbringing. And where there were gaps in available resources, Marsh has inserted bridging reenactments that never feel jarring. Edited by Jinx Godfrey, "Project Nim" plays as a biopic, simultaneously anthropomorphizing Nim with an ever-so-human emotional arc, while never failing to acknowledge the impossibilities of truly understanding the feelings and motivations of its main character. Because of that "You think you know, but you really can't possibly know" undercurrent, Nim's life plays out in a series of unexpected twists, even as Marsh uses traditional elements like sex, drugs and abuse to form the structure.
The actual Project Nim was about trying to understand the things that go on in the mind of a chimp. But Marsh knows that his hero can't sit down for an interview of his own, so "Project Nim" the documentary is about trying to understand the things that go on in the mind of people. In that respect, it's actually similar to "Man on Wire," which looked at tightrope walker Philippe Petit and said "What on Earth would make a man want to do that?" With "Man on Wire," Marsh found an enchanting answer. With "Project Nim," Marsh found only a string of confounding questions.
It's an intriguing conceit and the execution pushes all manner of emotional buttons. "Project Nim" was a great way to kick off the Sundance Film Festival.