Nature, Nurture, and an Awful Tale of Animal Abuse in Project Nim
Not every homo sapiens who sees Project Nim will be moved to pledge membership to PETA. Still, this documentary biopic of the 70s chimp picked to endure an experiment in simian sign language and general neglect pulls human heartstrings as wrenchingly as any creature feature in the 45 years since Au hasard Balthazar. Snatched from his mothers arms, then shuttled between surrogate parents who teach him to apologize for his natural rage, the films titular subject maintains a more primal connection to the moviegoer than any number of trained monkeys in Hollywood. Heath Ledger got a posthumous Oscar for his animal magnetism; so, too, should the late Nim Chimpsky (19732000).
As in Man on Wire, his superb retelling of Philippe Petits aerialist jaunt between the Twin Towers, director James Marsh makes such ingenious use of archival footage that one could swear he had shot it himselfwhich, in the case of a few judiciously selected re-enactments, he did. Following brown-eyed beauty Nim, by turns cuddly and ferocious, from an Oklahoma cage to an Upper West Side brownstone and then back behind bars, Marsh takes a wild story (from Elizabeth Hesss book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human) and imbues it with true-life tragicomedysomething akin to PBSs vérité classic An American Family, but with fur. A natural-born rebel in crazy times, young Nim enjoys his Oedipal phase, hits puberty, puffs pot, bites the hand that feeds, and generally goes ape before getting busted by the Man. As the primates human sister puts it, It was the 70s.
Roughly a year before the beastly Nixon broke free of his own unnatural habitat, a Columbia University prof figured itd be neat to see whether and how a chimp raised solely among humans could acquire language. To reveal the particular obscenity of the Nim project, Marsh doesnt have to do much besides turn the camera on Professor Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist (still at Columbia) who tries to argue that his affairs with fellow researchers had absolutely no impact on their scientific collection of data. The profs sexual escapades aside, the Nim project appears discreditable by its equally casual methodology. One of Nims mothers reports that loving and leaving the pissed-off primate was sort of like breaking up with a bad boyfriend.
Marshs film suggests a more forgivably anthropomorphist metaphorthat poor Nim is like a child of divorce several times over. Brought to the Big Apple at only two weeks of age, the displaced chimp proceeds more or less civilly through diapers and potty training, but terrorizes his first human moms poet hubbynot only biting him, but pulling his precious books off the shelves. On the one hand, Nim is a wild animal, of course, but Marsh also pictures him as a troubled teen in a series of profoundly dysfunctional families. Bereft of one wounded caregiver after another, the simian pupil certainly cant be blamed for learning to attackor harden his heart. Indeed, watching Marshs exquisitely sad film, a human cant help harboring the occasional fantasy of Nim rising to lead a planet of apes in fiery conquest.
The real story, alas, is more ordinary. A social animal, abandoned by the researchers he thought were family and friends, Nim kills his television, gets a lawyer, and finds a sugar daddymixed blessings at best. Nature might appear to win over nurture, except that the latter was clearly closer to abuse. A humane hero does emerge in the third act, though. While Professor Terrace is busy stumping for his late-70s book on the inconclusiveness of evidence that Nim is smart, a shaggy anti-authoritarianthe last hippie on earth, it seemscomes to the chimp on all fours, offering unconditional friendship, a somewhat better home, and the possibility of more high times.
Nevertheless, Marshs film remains a deeply haunting portrait of the unbridgeable gap between kindred species. Nim learns to communicate in sign language (he particularly likes the words play and hug), but declinesheroically, perhapsto supply scientific proof that an ape can live comfortably among people who often appear far less intelligent than he is. Naturally, this seals the animals fate. And Project Nim guarantees that well never look at zoosor our petsthe same way again.
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