Project Nim

By , April 29, 2012 2:33 pm

2 The Bronx is Burning + 2 Peter Singer = 4 “Project Nim”

James Marsh, director of “Man on Wire,” about a Frenchman who tightrope walked between the twin towers, finds another small pocket of weirdness in 1970s New York.  The LaFarge family, some upscale free spirits in the upper west side of Manhattan, embarked on an experiment: raising a chimp as a human.  Or, as Columiba Professor Herbert Terrace, the father, explains, “It was the 70s.”

It goes badly, of course.  Like all chimps, Nim is violent and aggressive at times, with moments of extraordinary gentleness and sweetness—basically, a Marlon Brando character.  Nim learns some sign language and takes on characteristics of a human child—potty training, and is even breast fed by the mother.  But over time he becomes too much for the family, and Professor Herbert pretty much disappears from the family.

The temptation is to impose our idea of humanity on the chimp:  He becomes angry with the mother who abandons him, and develops fondness for a rescuer.  We normally associate these emotions with humanity, but we recognize that Nim certainly isn’t human—that’s the folly of the experiment.  So, the question becomes:  Are these emotions we recognize as human actually animalistic?  Or did Nim’s exposure to the human world humanize him in some way?

Perhaps the film says more about academia than anything else.  A noxious blend of bohemianism and intellect made Project Nim sound like a good idea, enabled by the relative amorality of New York in the 1970’s.  I have a lot of sympathy for the spirit, especially in a time of corrosive uniformity and McDonaldization of, well, everything.  But the trade-off of bohemian intellectualism is a tendency toward callous indifference toward the moral code that holds society together.  In other words, perhaps the biggest question is why no one in the city government moved to put an end to chimp raising in a brownstone?

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