Project Nim is a documentary about a chimpanzee transported from the wild and used in a project by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace who wanted to study what would happen if an ape was raised in close proximity to humans. In true human fashion, Terrace and his assistants quickly discover they’ve taken on too much, and Nim is passed from foster home to foster home throughout his development, until later in life he wound up at an animal sanctuary where he spent the rest of his years. There are plenty of entertainingly eccentric and downright bizarre elements to the story, such as the now-grown children of Nim’s first adoptive human mother complaining about being treated as second-favorite, or the tossed-off detail of how that first mother chose to nurture Nim (you’ll know my reaction as soon as you hear it). But primarily, Nim’s is a sad story, to me at least. It’s a Promethean myth in miniature, only far more frustrating because it really happened.
James Marsh, the director, also made Man On Wire, the 2008 documentary about the brazen Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974. Here is my brief capsule review of Man On Wire (also from 2008):
If there truly is life on other planets, I hope that France is not the first country to make contact. The French are just not like the rest of the people of earth. Only a man born and raised in France could ever say something like this, talking about a life-threatening stunt: “If I die.. what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”
And only a Frenchwoman could state about that speaker, admiringly: “Every day is like a work of art for him.”
That kind of thinking is what is so fascinating and so maddening about the French. Man On Wire is a documentary about the group of young people who snuck into the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974 so that one of them could walk a tightrope between them. A truly thrilling, truly pointless act. The movie bounces between modern-day interviews, archived footage, and re-enactments, staging the preparation of the stunt like a crime movie (which technically, it is), and leaving the ultimate historical context in the background, without exactly ignoring it.
So as you can see, James Marsh is something of an expert in vividly detailing the bold follies and arguable successes of iconoclastic endeavors enacted in the 1970s. Both Philippe Petit, the daredevil, and Herbert Terrace, the scientist, had unique and frankly crazy notions, enlisted collaborators, and undertook their respective projects. The significant difference is, only one of them pulled it off.
What follows is my stream-of-consciousness as I first watched Project Nim. It’s all fun and games until someone… well, you’ll see.
9:26 PM – Watching Project Nim. This is some crazy shit. This lady is breastfeeding the chimpanzee already and it’s only ten minutes into the movie.
9:31 PM – The chimp is smoking pot and drinking beers. There’s weird sex talk also. Matt Broderick had Project X? This is shaping up to be PROJECT XXX.
9:32 PM – So far, the moral seems to be that chimps are smart like humans, but should not be raised by swingers. Good advice all around.
9:40 PM – The following is a list of some of the words the scientists taught young Nim to use.
One word is not like the others.
9:46 PM – Chimp is a cat person.
9:49 PM – These lab people are hooking up with each other all over the place. I’m starting to think that the 1970s porno-professor guy is not the best role model for Nim.
9:54 PM – Nim is currently dry-humping a kitten. Guess I was right about the influence, unfortunately.
10:02 PM – If this were a feature, the porno-professor guy would be played by Hector Elizondo.
Sadly, that means Garry Marshall would be the one directing.
10:05 PM – If Caesar and Koba were ever to see this movie, they’d be PISSED. #riseoftheplanetoftheapes
10:20 PM – Chimp is smoking pot again.
PINE-APE-LE EXPRESS. #wrongmovie
10:48 PM – Done. That story took some real dark turns. And you all should definitely see it. #projectnim
What I was getting at, by the end of the string there, is the sense this movie leaves you with, that sinking suspicion that Nim is no better off for having been raised and “educated” by humans than he would have been had he been left to grow up in the wilderness with his birth movie.
In fact, the movie would seem to be ammunition for a considerable argument that Nim’s exposure to humanity, our emotional, impetuous inconsistencies and our heartless, bullheaded bureaucracies, was singularly destructive to his life and his happiness. Every last bit of heartache we see in the course of this film may or may not have been circumvented by simply leaving well enough alone in the first reel.
So as good as this movie is, and as simultaneously calmly objective and subtly persuasive as it is, don’t expect anybody to learn anything. Man has been meddling with nature since we first started poking saber-toothed tigers with sticks. It’ll be that way until the dinosaurs come back and the last man on earth is working on taming hyper-evolved velociraptors.
Sorry, were you expecting less cynicism about our stupid self-centered pink species? Maybe if you’d caught me earlier in the month, before I stumbled across news stories like this one, or maybe this one, or maybe the thousands of similar ones from the past week alone. But no, this is man we’re talking about. We’re the ones who pull the wings off butterflies and then act befuddled that they don’t fly or look as pretty as they used to. Project Nim can be seen as a cautionary tale, but since it can only fall across the eyes of the most casually recidivist species that has ever existed on Planet Earth, it’s unlikely that the caution can be heeded.
In the meantime, I can be found on Twitter: @jonnyabomb