Project Nim

The door to our dark places is guarded by an ape. He’s been there through a hundred years of cinema: Merian Cooper’s Kong, Charlton Heston’s “damn dirty” captors, the test gorillas of Frederick Wiseman’s Primate. He’s there in stories several centuries older, his desperate grunts and almost-human DNA inspiring even that masterpiece of acquired language, Lolita. In his famous afterword, Nabokov traces his American opus back to an “initial shiver” he felt reading an article about an ape that produced the first animal-rendered drawing: “this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Project Nim takes us back to and inside that drawing. British director James Marsh arrives here fresh off 2008’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire, a highly mediated documentary chronicling a Twin Towers tightrope act that took place a year after the birth of his new subject. Project Nim opens in 1973, with home-movie footage from Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies. There—as twinkling nursery music and staged reenactments guide us—we see an infant pried from his mother’s arms and spirited away to embark on a narrative straight out of Fielding, Defoe, and Voltaire: the low-born naïf’s errant journey through a cruel, often ludicrous society.

Christened Nim Chimpsky by a Columbia psychologist, the furry heartbreaker arrives at the Upper West Side brownstone of a family of “rich hippies,” whose Montessori-schooled matriarch, Stephanie LeFarge, has agreed to raise him as a human, teach him sign language, and so test Chomsky’s theories about “generative grammar.” The experiment had its human conscripts too. “There was no family discussion about ‘should we, shouldn’t we?’” LaFarge’s daughter, the fortyish Jenny Lee, recalls early in the film. “It was clearly Stephanie saying, ‘Let’s have a chimp!’” she says, laughing, and with a whaddya-gonna-do shrug, adding the unneeded explanation, “It was the Seventies.”

Was it ever. As a linguistic project, Project Nim’s data proved inconclusive. As a social experiment on power and moral blindness in America’s now-faded intellectual class, however, it’s nothing less than essential. Drawn largely from Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Marsh’s Nim blends staged theatrics, dramatically shot interviews, and faded 8mm home movies to evoke a whole PBS-drunk, paradigm-quoting age of pseudo-reason. Nim was born seven months after An American Family debuted and sowed a reality virus that turned pandemic by century’s end.

Nim’s crucial line comes from the project’s leader, just after the chimp-napping scene. Recalling his choice of ex-student/lover Stephanie LaFarge to raise Nim, Columbia professor Herb Terrace says, “A chimp could not have a better mother”—summarily dismissing every female of said infant’s actual species. While LaFarge seems amply maternal in present-day interviews and home-movie gambols, she starts a refrain soon taken up by most of Project Nim’s early team members: “I knew nothing about monkeys or apes.” Soon after comes a chorus of unfamiliarity with American Sign Language, Nim’s primary mode of communication. Eventually, you get the sense that Project Nim took place a few doors down from the parapsychology department where Bill Murray was testing hot chicks for ESP prior to leaving Columbia to ghostbust. 

Marsh helps things along considerably, crosscutting contemporary interviews with deadpan archival counterpoint. “Herb was infinitely exciting,” LaFarge says as a Seventies-era close-up of the shirtless, hirsute prof plays like Wallace Shawn’s sight-gag walk-on in Manhattan. When Terrace replaces LaFarge as Nim’s foster mother, his choice reads Woody Allenish too. “Herb’s power as a professor, his age—completely impacted me,” recalls his nominee, Laura-Ann Petitto. “I wanted so much to be a part of his world. The world of academia.” Terrace says only, “I had strong personal feelings about Laura, but I don’t think that in any way got in the way of our science.” Cut to photo of the bikini-clad Petitto bearing Nim like a child. “I made her, in a sense, my director of education,” Terrace then says of this photo’s subject, who was, at the time, 18.

In a sense, Marsh is as guilty as Terrace: both use actual sentient beings as vessels for an often idiosyncratic agenda. By some lights, Marsh’s strategies are more shameless: nudging melodrama from Dickon Hinchliffe’s score; slow, low-angle dollies past faces of stricken interviewees; and a narrative arc that hits every major note from Shock Corridor to The Shawshank Redemption to Schindler’s List.

“I’m certainly being shameless in my pushing of those events,” Marsh acknowledged when we met in a Manhattan café in April. The dark-haired 48-year-old spoke openly and quickly, looking like a sunnier version of one of his early doc subjects, John Cale. Marsh’s filmography before and after Man on Wire alternates between artful documentary and verité fiction: a solely gustatory biography of Elvis Presley (The Burger and the King, 96); and the second (and best) entry in Channel 4’s Red Riding crime trilogy. Marsh credits his oblique strategies to Peter Greenaway’s early work and his expansive view of subject to Errol Morris—and he’s also borrowed music scores from both. But he added: “I’ve been as much influenced by feature films as documentaries.” 

When I floated the word bildungsroman, Marsh nodded vigorously. “Novels of that type were definitely in my mind,” he said. “I studied English literature and read those novels, and Fielding was one of my favorite writers. He was never shy to point out the absurdity of things with his characters.” Facts certainly seem to support this treatment, providing a sharp morality play on sex, power, and their various rationalizations. A Cornwall-born son of a semi-employed mechanic and a housecleaner, Marsh also caught picaresque nuances that others might not have—like the moment LaFarge recalls the arrival of Petitto. “She came out of nowhere as a . . . cute little thing from Ramapo [New Jersey],” says the Manhattan Brahmin, unchecked class hostility hanging in the air as archival interviews intercut with present-day ones to reveal that Petitto still has the same Jersey accent—along with a university chair in cognitive neuroscience, and a Guggenheim fellowship. 

Project Nim

“It’s about power,” Marsh said of Project Nim. “And the human beings that have the least power seem to behave the best. Those women didn’t have any power and they’re all very intelligent, interesting people in their own right. So to look at them 35 years later without those power structures in place was the right thing to do, I think.” Marsh screened the film for Project Nim’s most empowered participant last. Now director of Columbia’s Primate Cognition Lab, Herb Terrace sent one measured e-mail in response. “He took issue with the absence of scientific context in the story,” said Marsh. “But it wasn’t an aggressive push-back about ‘How dare you characterize me this way!’”

While the film’s producers bugged him for more “expert opinion,” Marsh has about as much time for Chomsky as Nabokov had for Freud. “That’s not what this film is—a TV science documentary,” he said. “What I didn’t want to do was overload it with context when I was doing a dramatic story of Nim at large in our human world.” He cited documentaries like Vertov’s kino-eye manifesto Man with a Movie Camera and Franju’s Blood of the Beasts as early, formative influences. “It’s incredibly constructed for a raw, improvisational film,” Marsh says of Franju’s debut short. “He cuts away to plot while somebody is being taught how they can chop an animal in half. The images in that film are unforgettable and amazing. It’s a documentary, but one that’s really dramatically constructed to mediate Franju’s interest in the slaughterhouse.”

This is probably a good time to say that things don’t go well for Nim, or for the humans who care most about him. As his vocabulary grows to include scores of signs—letting him communicate every desire from toilet access to a hug to a bong-hit—so do his size and strength. When Nim rips a chunk out of a young female teacher’s face, Terrace decides he has enough data, terminates the experiment, and abruptly reclassifies his star pupil as an animal.

The trauma of this remains visible on the faces of current interviewees, some of whose accounts are broken off by tears. “We did a huge disservice to him and his soul, and shame on us,” says Joyce Butler, the teacher obliged to manage Nim’s exile from humanity. Even Terrace shares a moment of carefully hedged regret. “I did feel bad,” he says. “I was definitely doing something that he somehow would feel is unjust or wrong.” Yeah, we think, as Nim signs “play” to his blank-faced new cellmates. He certainly somehow might feel that.

After an edenic idyll in a university-owned   estate, Nim gets kicked back to gen-pop at the Oklahoma penal colony, where his return is the very essence of classical tragedy: a bona fide anagnorisis, when the hero confronts the shattering truth about his own identity. The moment was captured on archival video. “Finding that was incredible,” Marsh says of the tape that shows Nim hunched near a dozen chimps with padlocked chains around their necks. “You see so much confusion of such a profound nature there. It’s us leading him to say, ‘This is what you are.’”

In his preparation for Nim, Marsh revisited Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, “for obvious reasons.” The breadth of human tragedy Bresson drew from the title donkey’s brief, sad arc moved Godard to call it “the world in an hour and a half,” and Marsh gets comparable mileage out of a chimp. Once larkish, Project Nim becomes life-altering for several characters—some of whom turn heroic in confronting their own animal and human nature.

Project Nim operated in the murky field of language, and was conducted by an individual who, according to his assistants, was largely absent from his subject’s life. “[Terrace] bases his conclusions on data, not on observation,” says Marsh. “He’s behaving as a rational scientist and yet saying to someone, ‘Be someone’s mother.’” And since even the rawest data needs interpretation, it’s hard to imagine Project Nim finding acute intelligence in someone its director shipped off to a vivisection lab. A few years after the experiment, Terrace reversed his original findings, determining that Nim’s three- and four-word strings of signs weren’t sentences but mere imitations, performed solely for rewards. Others didn’t see much of a difference. Nim’s most steadfast supporter turns out to be a Deadhead former employee of the Oklahoma primate center, Bob Ingersoll, who, in one interview, demonstrates a sentence Nim often signed to him: “stone,” “smoke,” “now”—a verbatim transcript of conversations I’ve personally had with fellow primates.

Marsh names as his favorite documentarian Frederick Wiseman, of all people, “although he clearly does something very different from what I do.” Since Wiseman himself once jokingly called his own seemingly unexpurgated works “reality fictions,” Marsh may be onto something. The history of primatology casts grave doubt on the news item Nabokov cites in Lolita’s afterword, a story the writer stood by nonetheless, telling at least one interviewer he even saw the drawing himself, reproduced in Paris Soir. Fittingly, that same afterword also includes Nabokov’s famous caution against the one word we should only use with scare quotes: reality.

They don’t make enough scare quotes for what we call reality today. A new study of 250 DNA-exonerated prison inmates found that 40 of them had falsely confessed to murder, all but two giving precise details of the crime that were unreleased to the press, and every single one of them on videotape. But you can bet these police documentaries didn’t begin with their subject’s arrival at the station. “To a large extent, what you leave out of a film determines what it is,” Marsh told me, suggesting the ocean of uncertainty that still surrounds all primates, an uncertainty even DNA science won’t resolve. The best we’re left with is a Platinum Rule, an update to the Golden, that respects another’s unknowable subjectivity and our tendency to project our own: do unto others as your deepest self and the latest research indicates others would have done unto them. 

Chris Norris is a frequent contributor to Film Comment.

© 2011 by Chris Norris