Not so unlike Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour, in which Charlotte Rampling takes a chimpanzee as a lover, Project Nim (opening July 8) concerns the integration of an ape into bourgeois intimate relations. In interviews over stills and footage from the experimental record and frequent news coverage, researchers recall Nim Chimpsky—the chimp they tried to teach sign language, as a test of Noam Chomsky’s theories about recursion and human grammar—as a catalyst for fracturing marriages and teacher-student couplings; he’s a son to his hippie-dippy surrogate mother and a weed-smoking bud to his Deadhead guardian.
The film is best taken as a study in anthropomorphism, as academics and New Agers try to reverse the tragedy of evolution, seeking communion with this other species by projecting onto Nim (seen variously naked and clothed in diapers, t-shirt with iron-on lettering, and houndstooth check blazer). So too, director James Marsh cuts from remembrances of Nim—described as rambunctious, affectionate, temperamental, lonely as he’s moved across sanctuary and lab—to old headshots, cuing appropriately heartwarming or heartrending music. It’s like a modified Kuleshov experiment, coaxing the viewer into finding the emotions delineated by the story arc in the facial expressions of a chimpanzee. Dramatic moments—infant Nim, wrenched from mother’s grasp with aid of tranquilizer gun—are reenacted in eerie, bleary slo-mo a-la Errol Morris.
A real Errol Morris documentary also opens this fortnight—and Tabloid also concerns fair bit of sentimental projection, devoting its final movement to subject Joyce McKinney’s love of her dog Booger, and her accounts of their practically telepathic rapport, which extends to death’s door and beyond. But then, the central “very special love story” of Tabloid is essentially anthropomorphic, too: Joyce’s obsessive, ocean-spanning love for her missionary boyfriend is, to judge from the accounts Morris assembles from her and others, a fantasy of fairytales and Americana constructed around a bland, ambivalent cipher from a strange culture (Mormonism). Joyce, who compares herself to the Narcissus (finding his lonely gaze at his own reflection poignant and romantic), is in her telling a heroine beset by heroes and villains whose every intention is directed towards her.
You can maybe see what attracted Morris to McKinney: the knowability of the other—other people, times, events, contingencies—has been his lifelong subject, even at his most interrogative, as in The Thin Blue Line. (Marsh is imitating Morris, as well, by circling his interviewees around a single, unchartable point.) “The truth is probably somewhere in between,” more than one person says in Tabloid—a Morris mantra if I’ve ever heard one. My colleague Nicolas Rapold is right, I think, to call the movie “a summary statement for Morris,” and as one of those people who, again in his words, found Standard Operating Procedure to be “insufficiently critical of [its] heated political subject,” I’m glad the filmmaker has found a more authentically mystifying topic to throw up his hands in the face of.
In honoring the supremacy—and the spectacle—of the subjective, Morris is not far from the film theorists who have compared the spectator’s relationship to the movie screen with Lacan’s mirror, through which we learn to perceive ourselves, and comprehend difference. “Perceived-imaginary material is deposited in me as if on a second screen,” wrote Christian Metz in “The Imaginary Signifier.” Which would, I guess, make the projection booth the primordial looking-glass world from whence come the originals we reflect—however imperfectly, as Kuleshov intuited, and with however much double-projection of our own.