Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway Project Nim The first seconds of the documentary "Project Nim" almost seem like an instant sequel to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", so similar is the actual Primate Center in Oklahoma to that updated classic. There is the same small dingy security room, the same tv monitor. The same electric shock stick. It's all there right in front of us. Sadly, this is no fiction, but real.
"Project Nim" is in a sense, the true story of Caesar. To quote the late J.G. Ballard, "Everything is science fiction." The time is upon us: Life has imitated art.
The documentary doesn't pull any punches. This is a very powerful scientific journey that pulls on the heart both simian and sapien alike. It is a Faustian-haired bargain that is hard to watch, but it is also ribald and riveting by turns. In the 1970s, Columbia University, ripped a baby chimp away from its mother in an attempt to teach it human sign language. The baby, named Nim Chimpsy, (after famed linguist Noam Chomsky, a bit condescendingly in my opinion) was raised as a human child. It was given a human mother, the loving and naive Stephanie LaFarge. Stephanie was a very permissive loving "hippie mom" by her own admission, and there is nothing wrong with her. She exudes kindness and warmth. Her only flaw it seems, is ignorance. The LaFarges had a big family and a sprawling ramshackle house with a VW Bus. Nim was allowed to do as he liked. He even smoked pot. The still pictures of Nim and the LaFarges are breathtaking. Little Nim is as poignant and as haunting a subject as anything by Richard Avedon.
But this is not "Bedtime for Bonzo" or Ozzie and Harriet, but real pathos and blood. The study is ill-concieved, there is no structure, no records or schedule. Nim grows spoiled and begins to violently hate Mr. LaFarge. Enter Laura: a beautiful young teacher who has striking features right out of a Botticelli painting. Herbert Terrace, who happens to be the horny boss of the project begins a relationship with Laura and to further complicate matters, Nim himself exhibits sexual behavior towards Laura. At one point, Laura admits that she actually prefers the company of Nim. This is great stuff, as entertaining as John Waters. Laura leaves the project and is attacked by Nim in the process.
Enter the hard-nosed, yet maternal Renee. Nim and Renee make exponential progress in human signing but one day Nim bites a huge gash in Renee's cheek, ala Hannibal Lecter and the study is terminated.
The interviews are heartwarming, gleeful, pointed and pained. No special effects needed. Each subject has their hearts wrenched. And for the most part, as the behavioral fiasco becomes dreadfully unhinged, each person seems more guilt-ridden than the last. As the camera pulls away, the interviewers are left forlorn and bereft by their own ignorant actions. Framed and confined by walls, they are invariably haunted and wish they could have done more for Nim.
Nim is sent to the dingy, depressing Primate Center in Oklahoma. The events related are uncannily like the aforementioned "Planet of the Apes". Trainer Bob Ingersol becomes Nim's remaining hope. Bob is a kind of Last Hippie, trying to preserve the natural order of things. As humans go, he is a joy to watch.
My favorite part of the film is when Bob gets a lawyer to represent Nim as a human in an abuse case. You gotta see it.
Science ultimately failed Nim in a sad appalling fashion and we have been less noble than our evolutionary ancestors. If in some rapidly tumbling Present, we continue to regress, subvert and govern upon the animal world, then let the Nims and the Caesars of the moment prevail upon us and rip into our faces. We deserve it.
Write Ian at email@example.com