Politics at the Movies

Project Nim

Directed by James Marsh

Now showing at the Crest


Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

There was a telling moment in a Fresh Air interview when Jenny Lee describes living in a New York brownstone with her large family and a baby chimpanzee from the ages or 13 to 15. “It was the 70s. Things weren’t so conservative then.”


She was describing her mother’s decision to breastfeed the newborn chimp, Nim. But she could have been describing how they shared marijuana with the very underage Nim—or the fact that parents and kids appeared to be openly smoking pot in the house together. Of the fact that her mom, Stephanie LaFarge, seemed to think it was appropriate to bring home a baby chimp one day—a chimp given to her by a professor, Herb Terrace, who she also used to sleep with—without mentioning it beforehand to her husband or five kids and stepkids.


I’m younger than Lee and didn’t have to grow up with the same kind of excess. But I recognize some things I’ve seen in my own generation. Even now she seems like more of an adult than her mom, who blithely describes one irresponsible, clueless act after another. Among people I knew growing up, there were some who had to take charge for absent or tuned out hippie parents, and some who grew more conservative as a result. Similarly, Nim’s life was largely ruled by adults who saw themselves as free and enlightened, but were mainly just irresponsible, with tragic results.


It’s the core of truth that lies at the heart of the sometimes overblown critique conservatives often like to level at the 60s (and, as my dad liked to put it, “Most of the 60s actually happened in the 70s”). To put it another way, Nim probably would have been better off growing up in a more conventional household with a strong male figure at its center. The dad of the house, who never appears in interviews to defend himself, appeared in Nim’s eyes to be a weak male ripe for overthrow. As a male chimp growing up, Nim sees his life almost like a video game—a series of challenges against increasingly powerful male adversaries until he finds his level. So he turns the house into two years of (even greater) chaos.


People repeatedly describe Nim as being better than the humans around him at sizing up a situation, determining the relationships among people and who has power, because he doesn’t listen to words as much as watch body language. The one true human alpha male in the story — Professor Terrace, who relied on intellect and arrogance rather than looks and muscles — is the most irresponsible of all, abruptly deserting Nim the same way he leaves one girlfriend after another. None of the early players in Nim’s life seemed to realize they were inflicting deep emotional wounds on a sensitive, intelligent creature that would one day have the ability to rip their arms off. Years later, after long periods of neglect and isolation in various facilities, he nearly kills LaFarge on her one visit to him. Amazingly, she still doesn’t seem to get the point of his anger afterwards.  


“Nim” is not just the story of one chimpanzee. It’s also the story of a particular time in American cultural history, and how it led to a series of events that probably couldn’t have happened before or since. It shows people who knew they were in the midst of a cultural transformation but didn’t recognize they were only partway there. They recognize Nim’s humanity, but seem to forget he’s also a wild animal with instincts and inch-long fangs. After years in which he learns to communicate in a very sophisticated way using hundreds of sign language words he’s learned, and in which he shows the ability to come up with entirely original signs which he then teaches to humans, Terrace pulls the plug and declares the entire thing a failure because Nim can’t seem to grasp human grammar. He and lots of other feel like it’s okay to just walk away at that point.


Nim also illustrates the fact that chimps have culture. Raised with humans and away from other chimps, he’s affectionate and cuddly in a way most chimps aren’t. When he finally gets to live with other chimps, he seems to bond more deeply with other individuals than is usual.


Along the way, Nim does come into contact with more caring teachers and handlers. And the true hero of the story is the biggest hippie of all. Trainer Bob Ingersoll is a longhaired deadhead who says Nim is the only person he’d pick over Jerry Garcia to spend a day with. Some of the best footage shows him roughhousing with Nim on some of the day-long hikes they took together, especially because at that point they’ve explained that Nim is six times stronger than any man, so you know the restraint he’s showing and the respect he feels. The later parts of the film essentially show the two friends growing old together.


In short, this is a touching story that’s also a microcosm of our relationship with our closest cousins, told lucidly and without explicit judgments, and one of the better documentaries I’ve seen in awhile.



Sacramento Film & Music Festival Summerfestl – Short Films Review


Review by Michael Panush

The short film is an art form that is easy to watch but extremely difficult to master. The five shorts presented at the Sacramento International Film and Music Festival mostly succeed at telling a complete and complex story in a limited amount of time, though some entries are stronger than others.


One of the early stand-outs was Boffin and Boffin, a brisk comedy set in an in vitro fertilization clinic. The titular two doctors who run the clinic are a married couple and can’t produce a child of their own no matter how hard they try. The joke is rather simple, but snappy performances from Katheryn Merry and Richard Price as the married doctors pull it off brilliantly. The quick direction of Ed Blythe moves rapidly through the chaotic fertility clinic, showing the travails of the two doctors as the film lead up to a predictable – but still humorous – punch line.


The true highlight was the final film, Destiny Lives Down the Road. It was filmed using non-professional actors, mostly playing themselves, in the town of Chalmette, Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The short film follows the day-to-day existence of a poor teenage girl, played by Dominique Thompson, as she tries to resume her life after the hurricane. She attempts to raise her two younger siblings, deal with her negligent mother and divorced father, and raise enough money to resume her hobby of dancing. The understated performances feel extremely real, right down to the distinct accents, and the shots of Chalmette, with overturned boats and rusting, abandoned cars, paints a grim picture of Post-Katrina life. Directors Daneeta Lorreta Jackson and Patrick Jackson move the film naturally to a bleak ending. Hurricane Katrina has spawned a host of media depictions, but few have the understated, personal despair of Destiny Lives Down the Road.


The other entries ranged from decent to the unfortunately weak. Perhaps Tomorrow deals with a woman’s depression and her strange desire to travel to Afghanistan, which leads her to an Afghan restaurant and its friendly proprietor. Its conclusion reveals the reason behind her depression, but hiding it for so long turns the film into a more of a mystery than the delicate character piece it should be. A rather awkward attempt to work the title into dialogue doesn’t help. The other film, Reco, is a strange Western featuring a teenage girl re-connecting with a mysterious figure from her past. Excellent cinematography of Utah’s stark wilderness and a haunting score fit the Western ideal by losing the characters in a vast and harsh landscape. Unfortunately, an amateurish script and performances hamper the film greatly.


The music video Lizard Wash, for local Sacramento band SIMPL3JACK, rounds out the program. It’s a bit of a bizarre choice to include a music video amongst short films, and the claymation and general weirdness of the video’s imagery, mixed with strange lyrics from the teenage band, doesn’t really add anything to the line-up.


Short films can certainly be hit or miss, but when self-contained shorts like Destiny Lives Down the Road succeed in entrancing viewers and telling a unique story in a limited amount of time, it’s always a cause for celebration. 


Late Summer Movie
Wasteland Roundup
By Tony Sheppard So the Fourth of July and its big box office bonanza is a distant memory, and we’re not into the serious fall drama season. We’re not even at Labor Day yet, so we’re getting those movies that seem somewhat summery and not too serious, but ones that can’t carry a holiday weekend. I agree with Malcolm’s thoughts (in last week’s column) about “Conan the Barbarian.” It’s a character that needs to either ooze charisma or go campy by delivering some extraordinarily lame lines (you know, snapping somebody’s neck while saying “Why don’t you take a break?”). Instead, it does neither. And so we get a Conan who is muscled but bland – not muscled enough to seem like
he could kill 50 men but easily bland enough to bore them to death.

The acting here is flatter than most interior house paint. As Malcolm pointed out, the most enjoyable part of the movie is when we spend some time with Conan during his
childhood, especially with one well-executed fight sequence in the woods (when young Conan is apparently only strong enough to carry three severed heads but not five). But
even then, the storytelling seems jumbled and the early scenes would make more sense if their sequence was reversed (why have the father tell us Conan’s not ready when we’ve just seen him slaughter several enemies? – It would have made more sense to be told he’s not ready, then see him training, and then see the slaughter that demonstrates he’s now somebody to contend with).

The acting is almost equally bad in “Final Destination 5,” but it exists in a franchise that’s here for one reason and one reason only: to shock its audience with gruesome,
sudden, and often elaborate deaths – something that it actually does quite well.

There’s one scene in a gymnastics practice session that will probably justify the price of admission for fans of the series – but it’s also a movie that even those fans could probably enjoy in about 20 minutes if they waited for the DVD and fast-forwarded through the appallingly awful dialog. For a franchise about inevitable deaths, it’s managed to
cheat its own death for at least another year. Two other movies teeter on the edge of being good and then seem to take a step back. “30 Minutes or Less” manages to sustain its premise long enough to result in an appealing trailer but not long enough for even its paltry 83-minute running time. It’s a somewhat controversial premise to begin with, starting out glorifying the driving of a pizza delivery guy who has to pay for the pizzas himself if he delivers them late – this despite a history of actual pizza drivers who had accidents because of policies like this.

Then we get a clumsy story about a bomb vest and a bank heist that often feels like somebody forgot to render the soundtrack while rendering the video. Not that every movie needs a booming backbeat, but this one just feels empty much of the time. The occasional amusing moments aren’t enough to stop it from feeling more like you’re watching a run-through rather than the finished project.

“Fright Night” is an even nearer miss – it has an appealing cast and a funny (re-made) premise, with a vampire casually grazing his way through his suburban neighborhood. It
even comes with some social commentary about the foreclosure crisis and the idea that the missing victims are simply assumed to have defaulted on their loans and moved
away. However, it just doesn’t quite deliver. It may be the best of the bunch described so far, but that’s a little like praising a Republican frontrunner.

Which brings me to the movie that counter-programs the testosterone rush and which, on its face, seems to bring a little quality to August. In “One Day,” we get to follow a relationship through almost 20 years, from college to early middle age by checking in with the protagonists on the same day each year (an odd premise given how poorly one
single day might represent the current status of a friendship). There aren’t all that many American actors who manage to pull off a good English accent – however in “One Day,”
Anne Hathaway seems to master several English accents, all for one character, and poor lonely Emma seems to come
from different parts of the country in consecutive
scenes (or even consecutive sentences). Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t have more friends (or viewers).

The only recently opened movie that seems to actually deliver on such a promise of quality is “Sarah’s Key,” about a woman in present-day Paris who realizes that her family only owns a particular property in the city because, seven decades earlier, the Jewish family that lived there had been forcibly removed. She tries to find out what happened to them and the movie tells us the story of both eras in alternating scenes. It has good acting, a profound story, and significant depth – in short, everything that the others lack.

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