James Marsh's Project Nim is a clever work of misdirection, a documentary done as sleight-of-hand.
Coming into his most recent picture with sky-high expectations (his previous film, Man On Wire [TFF 2008], won the Oscar for Best Documentary), director James Marsh can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. His new documentary, Project Nim, is a deceptively simple film that on the surface seems to be about the educational progress of a chimpanzee (that would be Nim Chimpsky) that is raised by humans in varying environments from an extremely tender age. But in fact, the film, relying upon a clever dual address style of narrative, turns out to be a documentary about an entirely different subject.
A mode of filmmaking that this critic is familiar with in older Hollywood cinema, but hasn’t seen employed so often in documentaries, is that of “dual address.” The style, as popularized by Hitchcock, essentially enables the film to tell two stories simultaneously: one that operates on a surface level and sufficiently entertains (a guy with a broken leg is spying on his neighbor, who might be a murderer) while also working out issues on a deeper thematic plane (cinema-going as an anxiety-inducing act of voyeurism). What’s so clever and rewarding about dual address cinema is that the onus of the work is on the viewer, and so as the viewer begins to uncover the film’s deeper meaning, he feels a sense of accomplishment, which makes the act of uncovering all the more stimulating, exciting, and fraught with meaning.
This kind of filmmaking made sense in big Hollywood films in the ’50s and ’60s, when the kind of philosophical, reflexive concepts that Hitchcock was interested in exploring would not have been countenanced by the economic model of production that employed him. While dual address worked so well for Hitchcock, it was nevertheless a response to the narrative constrictions of commercial cinema. Who knows what kinds of films Hitchcock might have made had he been able to operate as an independent filmmaker in the ’90s or ’00s?
What Project Nim reveals, interestingly enough, is that sometimes dual address is of merit even when it’s not necessary. Marsh could have chose to angle Project Nim however he saw fit, and documentaries do not typically play narrative games—a documentary is like a non-fiction book: it’s about what it’s about. However, Marsh chooses to set up the Nim storyline so that it cleverly misdirects, dealing with two topics: on the surface level, his documentary recounts the bizarre tale of the raising of the titular chimp; on the deeper level, however, one realizes that the film is not a documentary about the human characteristics of animals, but rather, the animal characteristics of humans.
Nim with Herb Terrace
Neither subtly nor overtly, Marsh chooses to plant a very matter-of-fact portrait just off-center in the film’s narrative matrix. The portrait is of Herb Terrace, a Columbia University professor who came up with the original idea for the Nim experiment. To be clear, the idea of the experiment was to raise a chimpanzee in a human home, teach the chimp sign language in some form, and see what happened. It was truly as unstructured as that, at least in the beginning. Problems abounded with the project; for one, no one in the home of Stephanie LaFarge, the rich woman who originally took care of Nim, spoke sign language. LaFarge also had little regard for any kind of scientific angle toward the chimp’s raising; she simply let him play as he saw fit and neglected to take notes or scientifically record her “findings” in any way. We learn that Herb and Stephanie were lovers for a period of time, while Stephanie was his student at Columbia.
Nim with Herb Terrace and Stephanie LaFarge
Later on in the film, Herb decides to take Nim from Stephanie’s home, due to a lack of progress being made in his education. He moves with Nim and his assistant, Laura, into a Columbia University mansion, where Nim’s education continues in slightly more structured circumstances. Herb begins having an affair with Laura; after he decides to break said affair off, Laura leaves the project, and in so doing, upsets Nim, whose progress is hindered.
It’s at around this point that it starts to become clear that Project Nim is not really a documentary about chimpanzee behavior. For starters, nothing is really learned about chimps that is all that interesting or revelatory—they can learn sign language; be affectionate at some times, hostile at others; play favorites; try to manipulate; etc. However, the selfishness and short-sightedness of the humans involved in the Nim experiment—Herb’s narcissistic libidinal choices, his arrogant lack of a serious scientific objective with the experiment, Stephanie’s naïve choice to not enforce any set of rules or structures for Nim’s upbringing, Laura’s naïveté with regard to Herb’s motives, etc.—become quite startling, especially when viewed in the context of Nim’s bare animal qualities.
Nim with Laura-Ann Petitto
In particular, the obvious mistakes made by Herb, a character who comes across as wildly self-involved and equally self-blind, serve to paint a revealing portrait of mankind. Merely interested in the experiment for the sake of glory and publicity and the trappings of power—not to mention a simple curiosity that is blissfully unaware of the real-world consequences of an experiment without scientific foundation—Herb’s narcissism and blindness does not only equate him with the self-centered and manipulative animal, Nim, it serves to portray him as a far more dastardly figure. For while both Herb and Nim come across as characters who will manipulate others to get what they want, only one of these characters really has the power of cognition and rationalization.
In that regard, Project Nim approaches some fairly tragic conclusions about the state of human cognition—that cognition is not something that has separated us from our base, animalistic desires, but rather, that it has only given us the tools of rationalization so that we may have the intellectual capacity to bat away the truths about ourselves that we would prefer to stay hidden. Watching Herb in interviews dismiss the questions about whether or not his various actions have compromised the experiment, one perhaps, for a moment, longs for an earlier time, when humans may not have been any less animalistic, but were, at least, far less deluded.