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Project Nim (DVD Review)

6 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 2/7/12
Box Office $0.4 million
$19.98 DVD
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images.

As far as I know, nobody ever asked Cheetah how he felt about being asked to be Tarzan’s comedy relief, though he did seem to enjoy himself slapping cold cream and powder all over his face after plundering some femme’s cosmetics stash in one series episode I recall. But James Marsh’s new documentary, which currently sports a 98% rating on Rottentomatoes.com, makes it clear that Nim Chimpsky (has a familiar ring, doesn’t it?) didn’t relish his own time in the limelight. Though in the case of this chimpanzee, screen appearances were restricted to scientifically mandated home movies, which provide a lot of rich source material for Marsh in his follow-up to 2008’s Oscar-winning Man on Wire, which this also amazing story almost equals.

It was the 1970s, which meant that when Columbia Prof. Herbert Terrace hatched a brainstorm to raise a young chimp in a human environment to see if the creature could end up communicating in sign language, at least one of the participants (beyond, it sometimes appears, Terrace himself) would turn out to be a flake. The biggest, at least from Nim’s presentation, was probably the wife of a wealthy poet (presumably one of the few) who offered her family’s Manhattan brownstone as a kind of chimp flophouse that additionally housed an additional seven human children. As a subsequent Terrace assistant opines, there was no structure to this arrangement; Nim was occasionally given alcohol and even a reefer, and he enjoyed knocking the poet’s books of the shelf in an offbeat form of domestic violence. Much later, with the now much larger Nim treated to intended peace that didn’t quite pan out on writer Cleveland Amory’s ranch for abused animals, his “attitude” escalated. This is when he picked up a pet dog that had proven to be a personal irritant and smashed it to death against a wall (certainly its own form of abuse).

Even before this, and despite at least some flourish with sign language training, his bites had such a way of sending his trainers to the emergency room that the hospital specialists in performing stitches should have been put on a retainer. There was also Terrace’s gangster-of-love inclination to get briefly involved with his female associates before what appear to have been abrupt goodbyes. It was all getting pretty complicated even before Nim got out of diapers and was in the midst of toilet training, two inevitable processes that had to become part of his upbringing if he were going to be hanging around the house. Knocking books off the shelf is one thing, but … well, you can imagine.

The story has several more byways, and while it isn’t a black-and-white harangue against using animals for research, it will likely be a subject of conversation at PETA mixers and fundraisers because this is one melancholy story (with shades of twisted humor). Nim was on the short list of 15 that initially contended for the coming documentary feature Oscar but didn’t make the final cut of five. This means the other five (some of which I haven’t yet seen) must be pretty worthy — or that the academy missed the boat, neither for the first nor last time. In any event, the film gave me some of the same feeling that I got from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man in terms of the folly of in trying to chum up creatures who will ultimately travel their own road if someone tries to push the point.

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