'Project Nim': A Chimp Learns, And Humans Don't

Sign Of The Times: Nim Chimpsky (left) was taught sign language by Columbia University researchers, including student Laura-Ann Petitto, as part of an experiment to prove that nonhumans could learn language. Ultimately, though, the study served to exhibit the failings of his "teachers."

Sign Of The Times: Nim Chimpsky (left) was taught sign language by Columbia University researchers, including student Laura-Ann Petitto, as part of an experiment to prove that nonhumans could learn language. Ultimately, though, the study served to exhibit the failings of his "teachers." Susan Kuklin/Roadside Attractions hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Kuklin/Roadside Attractions

Project Nim

  • Director: James Marsh
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images

With: Nim Chimpsky, Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler

Dramatic flair and a forceful point of view can be double-edged swords in a documentary, especially if the film's subject can't speak for himself. Or can he?

Based on a 2008 book by journalist Elizabeth Hess, the riveting Project Nim takes up cudgels on behalf of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee roguishly named for MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. In the early 1970s, baby Nim was recruited — meaning, torn from his mother's breast — by Columbia University researcher Herbert Terrace to be taught American Sign Language, the better to rebut Chomsky's claim that language is unique to humans. That's about as far as roguish goes in a story that plays out as tragedy for the chimp while shining a harsh light on the hubris of those who tried to "humanize" him.

The history of mankind is littered with efforts to retool other species in our own image. Still, there's a world of difference between sallying forth with your poodle in matching plaid vest and booties, and the heedless anthropomorphism that all-too-briefly turned Nim into a media star before consigning him to oblivion. As director James Marsh tells it, running around the fancy Upper West Side brownstone of Terrace's former student, Stephanie LaFarge, in diapers and a sweater was only the start of Nim's troubles.

What happened in this chaotically boundary-less household of "rich hippies" is told through a blend of archival footage, re-enactments and retrospective interviews with Terrace, his assistants and several LaFarge family members reassessing their aborted experiment through 40 years of hindsight and a pungent brew of rationalization, shame and regret.

At the outset, Marsh (who made the 2008 doc Man on Wire, another tale of wanton lust for conquest) slyly buys into the cute-pet narrative voice so ubiquitous today in YouTube clips. We see Nim romp with his new family, use a toilet, build a repertoire of more than a hundred signed words, mug for television cameras and become a recreational pothead. But there's something creepy about the Pavlovian system of punishment and reward with which his handlers enlist Nim's cooperation, like Annie Sullivan browbeating Helen Keller into civilization in The Miracle Worker. The home movies suggest an unsettling carnality between Nim and LaFarge, and the affection he has earned from his gratified handlers sours when he turns aggressive and hypersexual, biting a young teacher and pounding her head into the pavement.

Nim had an excuse — he was a chimp, and that's what male primates do as they become adults. His captors, on the other hand, regressed into panicked autocracy, then pretty much washed their hands of him. Terrace, who had enjoyed his own illicit dalliance with an assistant, abruptly pulled the plug on the project. Shunted around the country from medical research projects to an animal refuge hopelessly unsuited to caged animals in need of company, Nim grew visibly depressed and withdrawn, until sympathetic workers secured for him a happier old age with his own kind.

Professor Herbert Terrace, who headed the study of Nim, conducted an affair with his research assistant before halting the project once his subject got too old. Terrace then transplanted the chimp from a life of privilege to one of misery and uncertainty. i i

Professor Herbert Terrace, who headed the study of Nim, conducted an affair with his research assistant before halting the project once his subject got too old. Terrace then transplanted the chimp from a life of privilege to one of misery and uncertainty. Susan Kuklin/Roadside Attractions hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Kuklin/Roadside Attractions
Professor Herbert Terrace, who headed the study of Nim, conducted an affair with his research assistant before halting the project once his subject got too old. Terrace then transplanted the chimp from a life of privilege to one of misery and uncertainty.

Professor Herbert Terrace, who headed the study of Nim, conducted an affair with his research assistant before halting the project once his subject got too old. Terrace then transplanted the chimp from a life of privilege to one of misery and uncertainty.

Susan Kuklin/Roadside Attractions

Marsh remains admirably unsentimental about the chimp, who could be manipulative and at times vicious toward those he loved most. But the director, a skilled formalist of the Errol Morris school, is not built for verite impartiality. Unlike Morris, Marsh never speaks on or off camera, but his editing of the testimony makes clear his belief that in trying to make Nim more human, his teachers made themselves less so.

Nim's suffering is heartbreaking, but Marsh's melodramatic style, with its re-enactments and intense score, sometimes feels bombastic and overblown for a group of people who, aside from the frighteningly detached and morally careless Terrace, seem to be garden-variety neurotics and narcissists, more clueless than willfully cruel. It's easy to play God from the vantage point of an era when animal rights are so much more firmly embedded in public consciousness than they were back then. Above all, Nim's betrayers were creatures of their over-privileged age. As one LaFarge offspring says, all but rolling her eyes, "It was the '70s." (Recommended)

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