Monday, August 15

Missing the Point

Project Nim, the hot new film about the life and times of Nim Chimpsy, famed ape language subject, has been out in select theaters for a few weeks now. The press has been abuzz about the film, and its been received remarkably well by critics and viewers alike. Someone is my position was bound to hear a lot about it before I ever got around to seeing it, but see it I did, and now that I have, I can say a few words about how troubling a film it is.

When the director, James Marsh, was interviewed on a recent episode of The Bat Segundo Show, he repeatedly stated things like "that isn’t the film that I think would work for me" or "(that film isn't) the one I’m interested in making" when asked why he left out any mention whatsoever of other key players like Washoe and Nim's namesake, Noam Chomsky. But wait a moment, Mr. Marsh who's story is this, yours or Nim's?

Our society has entered a bountiful era of docu-dramas: The Kennedys, John Adams, The Tudors, and Frost/Nixon, just to name a few. We are inundated by colorful depictions of "history," some of which vary wildly from the known facts. I believe that in this new epoch of docu-dramas, now more than ever, films that call themselves documentaries have a responsibility to viewers, a responsibility to constructively inform.

Marsh makes it clear that his intent is to tell a story, a very particular story about the entity that was Nim. The other characters, the humans, don't really matter. They're in the movie because they need to be, without them there could be no telling of Nim's story. Once they no longer have a place in telling the story, they have no place in Marsh's movie. What results is the depressing tale of one misunderstood chimpanzee who made scientific history, but honestly got off pretty damn good compared to the vast majority of research animals. Is it accurate? The film manages to be scientifically accurate, but that isn't saying much, considering that Marsh's technique for ensuring scientific accuracy is to only include as much scientific history in the movie as is absolutely necessary.

Let us now return to my prompt, and I admit right here, that I am missing the point. If its neither about the people and how they were changed by Nim, nor the science and how it changed our understanding of our place in the world, nor the animal rights angle, then just what is a person supposed to think about after watching Project Nim?

I've been told that my "What can we learn from this? How can we act on what we learn?" mentality is part of my lot as a member of Generation Y. I've never found that to be an explanation why one shouldn't try to learn how to improve and not repeat past mistakes. Its not as if my generation was the first in a hundred years to overquote George Santayana.

These are the questions I must ask: "What are we to take away from this? What are we supposed to learn about the world around us, and in turn ourselves? How are we intended to change, as enlightened by this documentary?"

Marsh's films do not lend themselves to his approach. The problem first appeared to me when I saw Man on Wire, Marsh's first documentary film. Marsh does some ingenious stuff with style and cinematography, but the entire experience left me wanting. Look at other critically acclaimed, modern documentaries which focus on small group, like King of Kong (or Darkon, Murderball, The Woman Who Married the Eiffel Tower, and plenty of others). King of Kong is a narrative, and a compelling one at that. It also has no trouble taking the time to tell you about the people, the communities who make these stories possible, how these groups have come to exist (and persist), and why they mean something.

Man on Wire fails spectacularly at this aspect. Marsh is excellent at manipulating his audience in order to draw them into the immediate story (though personally I never managed to care that much), but in the end it falls flat. Marsh shows us an entire team of underground tightrope walkers, but who are these people? What kind of person was drawn to that ideal in the 70's? Where are they now? What did that experience mean to them in the context of the rest of their lives? Man on Wire failed to actually address the most important part of a documentary: Why should anyone care about these brief events from the 70's? What's the impact? What's the point?

I admit that I am a little bit bitter because if Project Nim were more like King of Kong, about the people who are living in a post-Nim primate research world, it would be about people like me. Instead, Project Nim is about a few people, some of whom are still involved in the primate cognition world, as they were almost 40 years ago. And its not actually about them, either! Its about Nim, except that never does Marsh ever consult any real primate ethologist to try and understand what Nim actually would have been going through during these experiences. Marsh implicitly criticizes the human in the movie for personifying Nim and not treating him like a chimpanzee, yet Marsh himself makes no effort to rise above these personifications.

Gah, the frustration mounts the more I contemplate the movie. Anyway, those are my stylistic gripes with Project Nim. Now for the ugly part.

There's some dirty, nasty deceptions of the involved humans by Marsh. I'll only point out one, but I think it is the most egregious. Marsh implies very stongly that when Nim was taken to LEMSIP, Dr. Terrace, the project leader, did nothing whatsoever to aid Nim in his plight. In fact, Terrace spearheaded the effort to have Nim released, bringing the issue to the media's attention and publicly challenging LEMSIP. Terrace offers this and other concerns in an article recently published in the LA Times.

Don't take my word for it, the situation is documented in Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, and the particular passage is available for your reading enjoyment thanks to Google Books (provided the correct pages are up on the rotation). Hess is by no means easy on Terrace, but she gives credit where it is due.

One should note that this is the book which the movie is supposedly based on. Marsh knew what actually happened, he must have, yet he deliberately omitted that part of the story and presented Dr. Terrace in exactly the opposite light. No one in this story is an angel, but they're still people and they still have lives. Marsh refuses to apologize for any of his protrayals.

I'm not an expert in Nim's history though, so I've no idea just how much else Marsh twisted in his presentation of this history. It doesn't matter much, I simply can't condone this level of blatant misrepresentation, and it taints the entire film.

Project Nim is an interesting film to watch, in spite of the fact that it is not a very good movie. It does provide a window into the life of one very real ape, and no amount of misportrayal, deludedness, and lack of direction can make the classic, pure footage of Nim being Nim less remarkable.


  1. Anthropomorphizing is practically unavoidable when making a film about animals (of any sentience level, really) -- the message is going to be largely colored by the perspective and opinions of the filmmaker, since animals can't talk, or direct, or point out things the filmmaker hasn't noticed. I might be willing to accept that this is largely unconscious, but it does seem pretty ignorant to be unaware of that fact.

    Film, unlike science, isn't something that accepts whatever result it gets; there's usually a goal in mind, and the movie is adapted to fit that.

  2. Of course, as human beings with human minds, we cannot escape some amount of anthropomorphizing. My main gripe with Marsh on that front, and honestly any writer who includes ape characters, from Ben Bova to Daniel Quinn, is that they aren't actually trying to write a realistic ape character, they're just using those characters as, vessels, symbols of human concepts.