Archive for Project Nim

The Ape of Things to Come

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2011 by dcairns

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. In which, as we always knew he would, James Franco destroys human civilization.


Seriously, think about it: all the decisions leading, in practical terms, to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’ apocalyptic climax becoming possible are due to unprofessional actions by the film’s hero. To be fair, though, all the emotional drive which makes that climax desirable to the characters engaged in it (ie the apes) are due to the actions of more unsympathetic humans.

Who are all played by British actors (would you entrust your ape to a sanctuary run by Hannibal Lektor and Draco Malfoy?). If it weren’t for the fact that the director and lead ape are British, one would suspect some kind of restaging of the American Revolution in simian drag. Just give Caesar (Andy Serkis) a set of wooden teeth and the illusion would be complete.

Actually, referring to Serkis as Caesar is an oversimplification, in a way that referring to John Hurt as the Elephant Man isn’t. Hurt certainly had the assistance of Chris Tucker’s prosthetic makeup effects (no, not that Chris Tucker), but when he whooped and grunted and shrieked, it was his voice, and when he swung from the bars of his cage and leaped through the treetops, that was really him. That’s not quite accurate, but you get what I mean. And asides from his stuntwork and voicework, considerable portions of his performance, Serkis has had his facial performance “reproduced” by motion capture. Every animator I’ve spoken to is of the opinion that, when this happens, the animators involved (and you had better get animators involved) have to interpret what the mo-cap supplies, and sometimes depart from it, to create an effective performance. Andy Serkis obviously just thinks he’s wearing a pixel suit,  which is fine for him but not TRUE.

I’m not saying he shouldn’t be eligible for an Oscar. I don’t take awards THAT seriously, and in any case, countless actors have been rescued or enhanced by good editing, which is maybe a better reference point than good costumes or makeup. Somebody interfered with those performances, tweaked the timing, censored the misjudged moments, manufactured reactions that never really happened. Mo-cap performances are several stages on from this, but as long as we acknowledge that WHENEVER a movie actor wins an award, it’s for part of a group effort, and that this is true to the power of a hundred with mo-cap, there’s no reason why an effective performance shouldn’t be celebrated. If this thing continues to catch on, though, maybe a special category would be the way to go.

Obviously, ROPOTA *is* a film about revolution, and in some respects a starry-eyed one. As Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman once remarked, “the right people never get hurt,” but in Rupert Wyatt’s film of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s hyper-condensed screenplay, swift simian justice is distributed to most of the bad humans, and the movie is squeamish about depicting injury or fatality to the numerous blameless cops who get in the way.


OK, I’m just going to wade in here: due to the coincidence of the film’s UK opening being a little behind the US one, it’s impossible not to think, occasionally, of the London riots. One doesn’t have to be the racist joke guy on Facebook who’s suddenly reinvented himself as a patriotic voice of reason and won the endorsement of our mean, vapid PM (himself a vandal and lout in his college days) to compare the insurrections in film and life.

Neither the riots nor the film are fundamentally about race, but it’s at the very least a  complicating factor in both. The APES series always touched on race a little, and in not quite comfortable ways, although the first film has barely a trace of this. By the time you get to CONQUEST it’s all about “ape power” and it’s a bit dubious. Including black humans as peaceful good guys in the last two films helped complicate and blur the metaphor a bit, which was useful, and casting David Oyelowo as a big pharma bad guy in the new one is even better. Really, the movie is about any oppressed group, and how violence erupts when injustice has built to such a point that the only conceivable response is a cry of “No!” and the taking up of arms. Whether the violence will actually produce any positive result has come to seem irrelevant to the perpetrator, so intolerable is the status quo.

The apes in ROTPOTA actually act with a much more effective, coherent and sensible common purpose than the rioters in London… actually, that’s unfair. The various goals of the rioters, insofar as they can be gleaned, were achieved, and delivered the short-term results they aimed at. Those were, in no particular order, (1) attaining a feeling of power by intimidating others, preferably those of a different social class, and by violating normal social rules (2) acquisition of free consumer goods (3) expression of revolt against the police. Some took part in all three activities, some in only one or two.

In fairness to the rioters (!), their festive rampage was basically spontaneous, whereas the apes had been planning theirs, at least a bit. So one uprising had only short-term goals, and probably looks a bit stupid now they’ve had a chance to think about it and now that many of them are under arrest, whereas the other had a long-term, desirable result in mind, although one that probably wouldn’t have worked if not for the movie’s other apocalyptic gambit.

What ROTPOTA does, quite usefully, I think, is show the pleasures and satisfactions of violent overthrow of the social order. In the understandable rush to condemn, there’s a tendency to view the disruptive element as alien, other, mindless and unmotivated. David Cameron has wholeheartedly embraced his predecessor John Major’s moronic sound-bite  “We need to condemn more and understand less!” A line which suits him, since he really understands absolutely fuck all. (Hearing that line first spoken, to resounding cheers, at a Tory Party Conference on the TV news was a truly chilling moment for me.) When Julien Temple was asked whether turning a race riot into a dance number in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS risked making it seem entertaining, he protested that a riot IS entertaining and extremely exciting when you’re in one. This movie dramatizes that in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience more effectively than Temple could manage.


While Time Burton’s inane and abortive series reboot seemed to regard its predecessors as silly, excusing its own dull humour and anything-goes sensibility (gorillas suddenly evice the ability to leap twenty feet straight up — and all because Ang Lee had just boosted wirework), ROTPOTA respects its primate ancestors and builds a credible pseudo-prequel that doesn’t slot into the series (here, Caesar is the child of a lab animal, not time-traveling chimp scientists from the year 3978) but draws upon story elements of the first, third and fourth films, producing a narrative outcome that could lead almost directly to the first movie but without necessarily requiring two thousand years of atomically accelerated evolution to do so.

Accordingly, the movie is stuffed with nods to Schaffner, Wilson and Serling’s Boulle original adaptation, some of which are glaring (can a nod glare?) and some so subtle you’ll only figure them out with a crib sheet or IMDb cross-referencing. The examples below are me taking things too far, as usual.

1) The film is set in San Francisco, which is a homage to actor James Franciscus who starred in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

2) The casting of David Hewlett as an unlucky neighbour is not only part of the actor’s ongoing project to appear only in movies about geneticists who take their work home with them (see also SPLICE), but also a reference to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: Hewlett plays a character called Hunsiker, and in SSOS there’s a character called Susie Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison. And Nova in PLANET OF THE APES is played by Linda Harrison. No relation.

3) In ROTPOTA, John Lithgow plays a man with Alzheimer’s. This is a reference to the original films’ decline into senility with the 1974 TV show.

4) In ROTPOTA, the leading man/doomsday catalyst is played by James Franco. This is a reference to James Whitmore, who plays Dr Zaius some random orang in the original film.

5) The milky eye of Koba, the scary chimp, in ROTPOTA, is a reference to Kirk Douglas in THE VIKINGS, which also features James Donald. Donald also appears in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, in which ancient visitors in a spacecraft reawaken submerged warlike tendencies in the populace of London, which is exactly what Dr Zaius fears Charlton Heston will do in the original film, as well as being exactly what David Cameron has done in modern London, only without a spacecraft.

He started well but now he’s just got silly.


Since Fiona’s quite well read on the subject of interspecies communication, she was able to supply me with additional insight into the film’s exploration of the subject. “They’ve really done their homework,” she says, pointing to the moment where Caesar is punished for biting a man’s finger, an incident drawn from the life of Washoe, a signing chimp. Some very experienced people like primatologists  Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Bob Ingersoll (hero of PROJECT NIM) have praised the film for its expressive evocation of the physicality of our ape relations and sympathy with animal characters over human. There have always, or nearly always, been films that took the side of the outsider — in a way its easier, or more flattering, to take the viewpoint of a rebellious chimp than it is to relate to the fleeing citizenry who are closer to our own type — but this movie takes it further than most. The humans are all either ineffectual or wicked.

The film’s air of somewhat-authenticity even manages it to steamroller over moments of outrageous artifice, such as the presence of another signing ape in the hellish “sanctuary” where Caesar is imprisoned. “Circus ape,” is his explanation for his communicativeness, as if any circus taught signing to its orangs. But the emotional impact of Caesar finally having another of his own kind to talk to is such that the contrivance is swept aside.

Really, quite an interesting film, probably the first blockbuster to even try to do anything interesting with real-world engagement since, I don’t know, V FOR VENDETTA. And it probably incorporates its ideas more neatly than that one. This can be seen, on one level, as the first APES film in the series to be actually about our relationship with the animal kingdom.

To take us out, here’s Johnny the chimp reenacting the end of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is entirely real.

The Secret of Nim

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 28, 2011 by dcairns

James (MAN ON WIRE) Marsh’s PROJECT NIM was one of the hits of this year’s EIFF, predictably enough — it tells a compelling story with clarity and considerable emotion. In brief, the story of a chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, torn from his mother, then from his adoptive mother, shuffled through a spectacularly ill-thought-out experiment in linguistics, then exiled into a series of more and more horrible experimental facilities, then finally “rescued”, at least partially. Bob Ingersoll, Nim’s friend, was in attendance and got a huge round of applause as he’s really the hero of the film.

Since most of Nim’s life was extensively documented on film, Marsh had a great fund of footage to help tell his story, which he supplemented with interviews with the principle characters (a word I’m always slightly uncomfortable with in documentary, although “subject” is even worse — a word better suited to Nim’s role in Dr Herb Terrace’s half-arsed experiment than to Terrace’s role in Marsh’s film). Now, since Dr Terrace, who emerges spectacularly badly from the film, is reportedly unhappy that Marsh left out too much of the “science”, and since Fiona is a primate fan who can give you chapter and verse on the question of interspecies communication (more sympathetically explored in KOKO A TALKING GORILLA, Barbet Schroeder’s film available on DVD from Criterion), I thought I’d provide a few little bits of info Marsh left out.

Terrace’s experiment was, as is clear in the film, a disastrously poorly-organized affair, with the ape deprived of a stable home and no controls in place to keep the research on-target. While Terrace eventually decided that Nim’s use of language amounted merely to “sophisticated begging”, using sign language to ask for stuff like a dog sitting up and offering a paw to get treats, the other scientists in the field had been very careful to screen out what is called “Clever Hans syndrome”. Hans was an arithmetical horse who could apparently do sums — in reality he was stomping a hoof with one eye on his owner, waiting for the moment when the guy would look satisfied with the horse’s adding. He’d count until the guy smiled, then stop.

So Terrace announced to the world that he’d proven that apes can’t use sign language with any real sophistication, a claim thrown into doubt by the results obtained by actual proper primatologists, the guys who really know something about apes (and sign language). This claim is allowed to stand in Marsh’s film, with only Ingersoll countering it, but Ingersoll’s standpoint is more emotional than scientific so even though audiences are inevitably going to prefer the passionate hippy to the somewhat sleazy scientist, they may come away with the impression that Terrace proved something. This would be an error, in my view.

Another interesting bit of chimp science — we learn that Nim was eventually sent to a centre for HIV research, a very scary place which actually has death camp resonances — chimps are seen with numbers tattooed on their chests, but we don’t learn something quite interesting about this field of work (Marsh’s film isn’t about the science, really, so this isn’t a criticism). When HIV research really began, scientists turned to chimps as ideal subjects, infecting hundreds of them with the virus so they could test possible treatments for AIDS. And then they found out that chimps can’t get AIDS. So now they had hundreds of HIV-positive chimps which were of essentially no scientific value, chimps who could not get AIDS but who could bite you and give it to you.

This isn’t necessarily an argument against animal research. A cure for AIDS would be worth sacrificing some animals for, in my view. But maybe it’s an argument for greater caution? If we regarded chimps as only slightly less important than people, we’d have to be very sure of ourselves before we made the choice to inject one with HIV. And then we’d have discovered they can’t get AIDS before we’d gone so far as to create a whole population of HIV-positive caged apes.

The last fact I have to add to the film is one I’m surprised Marsh left out. Dr Lemmon is a minor character in the story, the guy who ran the centre where Nim was born, and into whose dubious care Nim was entrusted after his sojourn with Terrace’s harem of female assistants came to an end. We learn about Lemmon’s use of a cattle prod to keep his apes in line, but we don’t hear of the startling behaviour Roger Fouts describes in his book Next Of Kin … Lemmon wore a snake ring with ruby eyes, and he would walk between the cages of chimps and offer his hand to the alpha males… and the alpha males had to bow down to him and kiss his ring, or else they got an electric shock. Dr Fucking Moreau or what?

Some people may find PRJECT NIM sentimental, and indeed there are cute chimp shots and musical-emotional cues given to the audience, but the actual content is a pretty considered examination of our relationship to, and responsibility for, animals. Marsh claims not to judge his characters, but in his selection of voices and stories he certainly guides us towards forming our own conclusions.

Via Facebook, Nim hero Bob Ingersoll himself suggests some further reading:

Apes, Men and Language: Teaching Chimpanzees to ‘Talk’ Alters Man’s Notions of His Place in Nature (Pelican)

Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

The book Fiona had read is:



Further viewing:

Koko: A Talking Gorilla: The Criterion Collection