“Project Nim,” reviewed

“Project Nim,” reviewed (photo)

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This was the experiment: take a chimpanzee, raise it from birth like a human baby, and teach it to communicate with sign language. In other words: can you teach the animal right out of an animal? In his powerful new documentary “Project Nim,” director James Marsh chronicles the highly unorthodox 1970s linguistics experiment that sought to do just that. Some of the people he meets along the way could use their own lessons on how to act like a human.

The experiment was the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Herb Terrace, who gave a chimp named Nim Chimpsky to one of his former students when he was less than two weeks old. Terrace told the ex-student, Stephanie, to raise the baby as a member of her family. So she did: clothing and diapering him, and teaching him sign language. But since Stephanie was a bit of a hippie that also meant letting him try alcohol and pot and even breast feeding him.

In many ways, baby Nim was like any human child: capable of great compassion (Stephanie’s daughter talks about how he used to kiss away her tears when she was sad) and prone to wild mood swings. But as he got older and began to pick up sign language, Terrace reasserted his dominance over the experiment, if you will, and reclaimed Nim, moving him to an estate where he could be monitored and tested full-time by a hand-picked staff of Columbia students and researchers, many of whom, in what I’m sure was just an incredible coincidence, were beautiful single women. The narrative Marsh weaves is thorny with jealousies and broken love affairs between Terrace and his staff. Animal urges, it seems, are not the exclusive province of animals.

Nim’s story seems at first like a cut-and-dried lesson in the power of nature over nurture. No matter how much his human companions dressed him or taught him to use the toilet Nim was still an animal, and by the time he was five years old he was too big, too strong, and too much of an aggressive, dominant chimpanzee to pretend otherwise. But allow me to propose an alternate theory: Nim’s childhood consisted of one jarring scenery change after another, and his human protectors often squabbled over custody of him like a bunch of divorcing parents. In all likelihood, Nim’s increasingly disobedient behavior was a simple case of genetic programming. But maybe the crazed, unfocused nurturing of the people around him helped things along.

Eventually, Terrace’s experiment comes to an unexpected conclusion and Nim is set adrift, sent to one depressing animal testing facility after another. This animal lived a remarkable life but he had no control over any of it, and the lack of agency he has in his own destiny makes “Project Nim” into a frequently heartbreaking film. There continues to be a debate over whether Nim truly learned to communicate or whether his ingrown skills as a brilliant beggar enabled him to ape the humans’ behavior without understanding it. But if we did teach him some small amount of cognition and expression, what we did to him next was an even greater tragedy.

With his experiment, Terrace draws one conclusion but Marsh, skillfully blending a healthy amount of archival footage with careful recreations and new interviews with most of the participants, may draw another with his film. Whether or not he could sign, regardless of how cute he was as a baby chimp, Nim was an animal. But just because he was an animal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, or deserve simple human decency. “Project Nim” makes it pretty clear that he does, and that Nim spent years crushed beneath the weight of disappointment and abandonment before an unlikely savior appeared to give him back the joy of companionship and friendship. The forgiveness Nim displayed after that is something we humans could aspire to.

“Project Nim” opens Friday in limited release. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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Draught Pick

Sam Adams “Keeps It Brockmire”

All New Brockmire airs Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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From baseball to beer, Jim Brockmire calls ’em like he sees ’em.


It’s no wonder at all, then, that Sam Adams would reach out to Brockmire to be their shockingly-honest (and inevitably short-term) new spokesperson. Unscripted and unrestrained, he’ll talk straight about Sam—and we’ll take his word. Check out this new testimonial for proof:

See more Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC, presented by Samuel Adams. Good f***** beer.

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