Now that February’s here, and the studios are going to start rolling out bad love stories/comedies/feel-good-she’s-dead-but-wants-to-have-a-wedding flicks (at least one, no doubt, with Matthew McConaughey and Goldie Hawn’s daughter), do yourself a favor and rent a new DVD release instead. I recommend the documentary Project Nim, out this coming Tuesday, 2/7. Yes, the chimp documentary.
A Columbia University psychologist set up an experiment in the ’70s in which a chimp would be raised from birth in a human family as if it were just another one of the kids. He wanted to see if the chimp would learn to communicate and how. They named the little guy Nim Chimpsky, after groundbreaking language theorist Noam Chomsky. It’s all downhill from there.
If there’s ever been a “period documentary,” this is it. The documentary makes use of a trove of archival footage from the ’70s. Experiments tend to be well documented. And middle-class families of the ’70s took a lot of home movies, even if one of the kids was an ape. And once he’s school age, the hippie-dippy grad students working with the chimp have long, flowing hair, shiny eyes, and sandals. Adorable. Nim is passed many a joint. Disturbing.
The filmmakers also weave in contemporary interviews with the players. Part of the pleasure of the film is seeing old and young versions of the same people. A craggy faced middle-age woman recalls how everyone was sleeping with everyone. Hey, it was the ’70s—that glorious time between the Pill and AIDS. She laughs and her face lights up and suddenly you can see the fresh-faced lass she used to be. And the next time you see the sweet young sign language teacher in the peasant blouse and denim skirt, you can see the ghost of the serious mature lady face that she’ll grow into over time.
The film is a tragedy—a remarkable story, told with perfect narrative drive, which ends badly. Cute little chimps grow into menacing adult male apes with the strength of five men. And they communicate all right. They express their displeasure by ripping your face off. And well-intentioned hippy scientists lose their innocence. Like any classical tragedy, those at the top of the world can have a fatal flaw and lose everything. What the well-intentioned scientists had was a blind spot—while shoring up Nim’s human nature, they forgot to account for his chimp nature.
What happens to Nim is as heartbreaking as what happens to the family and the workers who lived with him. You’ll be moved and outraged. Project Nim was the 2011 film I had the most emotional response to. Crying, laughing, pounding my leg in anger, holding my breath in tense anticipation of what was going to happen next. Feature filmmakers could learn a lot about structuring a powerful ride of a cinematic experience by following this movie’s lead. And you should stop monkeying around and rent yourself a copy.
Chimp Change: Other Strong Docs
Murderball: This is a documentary about wheelchair rugby. Yeah, you read that right: WHEELCHAIR RUGBY, which used to be called Murderball when it was invented in Canada, but now that it’s international and in the Paralympics and everything it’s got a more respectable name. (How does nice old Canada keep coming up with these demented violent things–wheelchair rugby, David Cronenberg, Celine Dion?) Anyway—this movie rocks. No, it RAWKS! I was jumping up and down on my couch punching my fist in the air. This isn’t your nice, sweet, handicapped-people movie. It’s a total adrenaline rush. It’s sexy, charming, and smart.
Sound and Fury: Deaf parents have a deaf child but there is an operation that could change that. And the hearing grandparents want the child to have it and the parents do not. Is your heart broken already? No? Feel your way into it. For a moment be that grandmother, who raised a deaf boy and saw what the other children did to a deaf child. How they ignored him. How they teased him. How her heart was wounded again and again by the awful world. And now she loves her granddaughter and there’s a way to save her from all that. Now feel your way into the mind of the son, a man who, despite being deaf, fought his way through the world to a high profile job in a Manhattan computer firm and met and married a deaf woman. She is the love of his life, and together they immersed themselves in deaf culture. Gaining self-esteem and self-respect. Learning to speak the language of waving hands. Deaf pride. Gorgeous, beautiful deaf people forming a culture unique to themselves far away from the awful world. And the son and his wife have a beautiful baby girl and she is deaf. And she learns sign language from when she is still in arms. And their family is beautiful and made entirely of love. How are you doing? Can you imagine this little girl, full of life? Can you see her baking cookies with her grandmother who has learned sign language? Who learned it to teach her son? All these people are made entirely of love. And they all want the best for this girl, whose name is Heather and laughs with her mouth as wide as her face, but no sound. You’ll see everybody’s side and there’ll be nothing to do but howl.
Harlan County USA: Wow. Wow. This is a classic. Did Barbara Kopple invent documentaries? Didn’t documentaries before her have deep-voiced men saying things like “The woodchuck makes his winter home in…” or is that just in Canada? Yeah, Barbara Kopple, may the universe bless her! She shoves her camera right down the barrel of a scab-thug-hired-strike-breaker’s gun at one point. I dare you, her camera says, I fucking dare you to shoot me. It’s amazing. Only, it needs subtitles. Those Kentuckians are not speaking English. Whose side are you on, man, whose side are you on?