REVIEW: Project Nim Is Partly About Chimp Behavior, But Mostly About Humans

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In Project Nim we are invited to observe the tics, tweaks, and expressive details embedded in the story of a behavioral experiment as told by the social scientists who attempted to raise a chimpanzee as a human being. The camera is its own kind of cage, and director James Marsh (Man on Wire) frames all of the key players in the quintessentially 1970's project as captive specimens. Each interview subject sits before the same gray background and is introduced with a showy, investigative pan; a second pan away signals that subject's release from the narrative. Between pans the players speak to the camera, and their emotions, aversions, contradictions and language choices embellish the oral history with unintended ironies. Very quickly it becomes clear that the life of Nim Chimpsky is foremost a story about the human animal, and human behavior.

Marsh has noted that he wanted to use the techniques of biography to tell Nim's story, and so the pathetic fallacy that blighted so much of Nim's experience of the world is extended to the documentary meant to expose its folly, setting up a useful tension. The pull of the idea that the animals populating the earth -- especially the ones that exhibit pseudo-human behaviors and share the greater part of our genetic code -- offer a reflection and extension of human consciousness is great. But then, so are the limits of any biography, and in playing with those lines Marsh draws out the difficulty in exposing oneself to this story without succumbing, in some way, to the errors it describes. Watching Nim as a newborn, a clingy, big-eyed blob in diapers, alternately delighted and terrified by the world, who isn't struck by the same protective pang that human infants elicit, with the added thrill of inter-species intimacy?

Even after Marsh's shadowy re-enactment of Nim's birth in a dank Oklahoma facility, even after we've seen that the only way to get the chimp out of his mother's arms was to drug her into unconsciousness, the home movie footage that accompanies the talking-head interviews confirms the emotion-clouding tyranny of animal cuteness. Seeing Nim goofing around the Manhattan home of Stephanie LaFarge, a former Columbia psychology student of Herbert Terrace, who headed the experiment, you think, at least for a moment: Wouldn't that be fun? "A chimp could not have a better mother," Terrace declares of his decision. The people in this film say stuff like that a lot.

LaFarge and Terrace tell the first part of the story (there is no voice-over narration). Reference is made to a past affair and LaFarge, a former sex therapist and current benign-looking older lady, makes all sorts of skin-rippling, groovy mommy comments about her need to have a sexual connection to her colleagues, her breastfeeding of Nim, and how "exciting" it was to give him the run of her house rather than teach him boring, repressive sign language. The little simper that crosses her face when she describes her "rich hippie" husband's acrimonious relationship with Nim as "impotent" tells you all you need to know about the little primate's prime function in their home -- that is, as a projection screen for their rich hippie crap. When Terrace, who claims to have regarded Nim not as a child but as "the personable center of an experiment," is informed of the extent of LaFarge's negligence (alcohol and pot smoking become Nim's pastimes), he turns the chimp's care over to another student, a willowy brunette named Laura-Ann Petitto.

Terrace and Petitto's respective descriptions of the romantic relationship that developed between them suggests the hopeless confusion surrounding a project centered on human communication skills: Even a spider monkey would roll his eyes at Terrace's claim that the romance "didn't interfere with our science"; 35 years later Petitto still bristles with hurt and enmity. Petitto leaves the project when Nim bites off part of her face, and his emerging "chimp-like" nature puts a real harsh on Terrace's increasingly tenuous research buzz. Though Nim learns the signs for eating, walking, and going to the bathroom (and makes up one himself, for "play"), the experiment gets caught up in the kind of usage arguments made for phrases like "could care less" today: If the intended meaning is understood, does expressing something "correctly," or in complete sentences matter? And when one party is a chimp, what portion of intention is ascribed?

Nim's next set of caretakers, two more wispy hippies who fall in love, become resigned to the five-year barrier -- after which chimps are fully grown and too aggressive to handle -- that "no one" crosses. His minders call the lack of "transition time" given to Nim before his return to Oklahoma "deceitful," still thinking of the incident in human terms -- that is, the terms of their own guilt -- and not animal terms, which mark the deceit as absolute. Terrace's star rises as he makes the research public, and Nim falls into the hands of LEMSIP, a biochemical testing facility run by the unbelievably apt personage of Dr. James Mahoney. Though he appears at first to be a perfect villain, along with Bob Ingersoll, a student who takes special interest in Nim back in Oklahoma, Mahoney seems to have the clearest eyes on what constitutes interference in an animal's life and how we assign preference and sensitivity among species.

And yet, even at the end, when the experiment is long over and Nim is spirited to an equine sanctuary whose well-intentioned owners wonder that he should not be happy living in a box with a bed of his own, just like them, the boundaries blur. LaFarge reappears to declare her lack of attraction to the adult Nim; Bob shows up for play dates and seems to be recognized by his pal; even Mahoney, entrusted with the film's final statement, ascribes forgiveness to chimpanzees. That his words resonate within and without this circumspect documentary is a testament to the necessary and endlessly confounding story it tells.