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Fri July 29, 2011
Walker's Three to See: Project Nim
KCUR Arts Reporter Steve Walker shares his top movie pick of the week.
There are few heroes but plenty of drama in Oscar-winning (Man on Wire) documentarian James Marsh's new film about how science and sex can warp people's humanity. In the mid-1970s, Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University linguist, begins an ethically-challenged study as to whether or not a chimpanzee could learn to communicate by using a form of American Sign Language. Though the theory in and of itself isn't evil, his process is ill-advised from the start, when he steals a week-old chimpanzee from his mother and places it with a family living in a brownstone on New York City's Upper West Side. Things are cute for awhile - the chimp, punningly named Nim Chimpsky, frolics around in kiddie t-shirts and a diaper and plays with the family's pet dog - and then they're not. Nim hates the male head of household and begins to hit and bite, as wild animals tend to do when forcibly domesticated. Marsh then tracks Nim's sad and sorry journey with access to seemingly unlimited footage of various grad students' (some of whom begin sleeping with Terrace) experiments. Like an uncontrollable foster child, Nim is placed at various facilities (the most depressing being an animal research lab) before finally finding a little peace in his last years. "Man on Wire" didn't move me at all, but "Project Nim" floored me. (Glenwood Arts)