by Richard von Busack
CAN’T CALL IT anthropomorphosis, when the subject is an anthro already. Elizabeth Hess’ book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is the source for the new documentary by James Marsh (Man on Wire). In the 1970s, at an Oklahoma primate-research center, a baby chimp named Nim was taken from his mother at birth, just as a half-dozen of his siblings had been taken before him.
Nim was sent to New York to learn sign language in a study led by Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace. Terrace hired a series of assistants, some who knew something about apes, few who set any limits. Stephanie Lafarge, interviewed here, was a well-off bohemian who included Nim with her seven children (she literally wet-nursed the chimp). Nim’s next home was a Riverdale estate, where Terrace kept a closer eye on his development.
What follows is a story of a beast getting beastlier. (“No one keeps a chimp after age 5,” we’re warned.) It was the decade in which the word “inappropriate” vanished from the dictionaries; most disturbing, maybe, is Lafarge, seen in home movies, getting sexually groped by Nim in the name of exploration. Meanwhile, friends of the ape recall holding pot parties for him. I guess sharing a joint with a chimp was a dream we all harbored in those days. Compromised data and thorny personal situations make matters worse. After a number of bloody attacks, Nim ended up in lockdown: first, the prisoner of cattle-prod-wielding handlers; later a captive in a medical experiment lab.
Dickon Hinchliffe’s droning score reinforces the obsessive accounts of injuries—those done by the chimp and those done to him. The film leaves hanging the question of how much Nim knew and when he knew it. Was Terrace right when he claimed that the chimp was mimicking rather than thinking? Were the enamored humans who surrounded Nim right in believing the chimp was communicating with them? This T.C. Boyle-ish story makes you hang your head in despair. It’s a tragedy no matter how Marsh seeks to enshrine—through polished visuals, smooth, deposition-like interviews, and typographically precise titles—pretty details of loyalty amid a history of grim betrayal.