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Sundance '11 Day 1: Chimps, Like Us

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 20, 2011 11:48 PM

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Project Nim.jpgIt's unclear how or why, but this year there's promise in the Park City air. It wasn't just that I can leave my room, walk for 90 seconds, and enter the festival headquarters (although there's that). Nor was it that I've been granted, rather magically, the sort of badge than reduces certain stresses of seeing movies here (that helps, too). It also wasn't that, while foraging for replacement gloves at a popular upscale local winter-sports shop, I wound up at a party thrown by Snow, apparently the magazine for people who really like the upside of bad weather. Well, maybe it was. Entering was a real rabbit-hole moment: a showroom dominated by friendly well-heeled blonde women and men, their faces tight or ruddy, guzzling wine and hors d'oeuvres, happy to say hi to someone who just didn't look -- how you say? -- invited. ("Snow" felt surreally apt.) 

Arranged on a handsome staircase were what appeared to be models for the store's apparel (their tacky layers, immaculate slope-wear, and dull, youthful hotness just seemed to say "for sale"). They moved their bodies to Dennis Edwards, Cherrelle, and Bell Div DeVoe, even though it's unclear whether they knew they were dancing to R&B classics. But watching them bounce and jiggle on that staircase was inadvertently evocative -- less "Soul Train," more "Brady Bunch." Elsewhere, two saleswomen were beside themselves after an actor gave them his autograph. It was Tim Daly, who currently has a role on the "Grey's Anatomy" spawn, "Private Practice." He agreeably, if modestly, supplied the room's only Hollywood wattage. 

This was the sort of easy, tangential fun that could probably be had on most nights in a ski town that, for 10 days, tolerates a film festival. But to find it a film critic must fall down a rabbit hole; and, this year, I fell. Film-wise, the first day here is a light one. You need a minute for an altitude adjustment. And part of the reason things this year also feel right has something to do with the movies, which, until this evening, no one's really seen. 

Every year Sundance's ever-comely Mr. Roarke, Robert Redford, declares that his festival has returned to its roots. Forget the stars and the gift bags and the studios clamoring for the next quirky movie with a crusty part for Alan Arkin. We're totally, truly independent -- or at least less compromised by the vultures of the marketplace. This year, for some reason, I believe him.

The first film to test the festival's annual decree was James Marsh's documentary "Project Nim." Marsh made "Man on Wire," the fanciful movie about Philippe Pettit and his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. The new movie is about the notorious trials, tribulations, and ultimate tragedy of a chimpanzee named Nim, who in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s was in the news for a battery of reasons that began when he was taken from his mother and sent to live with a New York family as part of an experiment to test cognition and language ability in primates. What emerges from the first phase of poor Nim's life as an anthropomorphized creature is a psycho-sexual case study starring the chimp and the young doctors studying, educating, loving, and exploiting him. 

The comic bizarreness of this story, which also was told in a book by Elizabeth Hess, suggests that Charlie Kaufman might have been inspired by Nim to write the non-John Malkovich parts of "Being John Malkovich." But this movie remains tinged with a horror that, like the bass line in some songs, you don't notice but is crucial to the heft of the music. After 40 minutes, as the film turns into a story of maddening inhumanity, it become all bass. 

Marsh continues both the movies' long fixation with primates and some of documentary filmmaking's continuing dependence on Errol Morris for formal ideas. That's too bad, since Marsh's previous movie was such an original, inspired, poignantly discreet piece of filmmaking. "Project Nim" will affect you in the way some good movies ought to (I was part of a chorus of angry sobbers). 

But the perfectly framed studio interviews with the humans in NIm's life, the many tracking shots of them, the mischievous music, the subtle reenactments, the appalling quirkiness of it all just feels like something Morris, whose disturbing new movie, "Tabloid," is on its way, might have done. That style in Marsh's hands, while powerful and wrenching, also feels slick and presumptuous. At some point, for instance, someone tells us that chimpanzees are forgiving creatures. How do we know? And what does that fix? In trying to explain the physical and psychological dangers of humanizing animals, the movie makes a damning case for certain types of pet ownership. But it's a problematic one. The movie, too, verges on dressing Nim up.

Still, "Project Nim," which HBO Films just purchased and will release, is far stronger and more provocative than most of what I saw last year at this festival. If things from here get better, it means Redford wasn't just talking. He's serious.    

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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