You Don’t Have to Live Like a Chimpanzee: Short movie notes

You Don’t Have to Live Like a Chimpanzee: Short movie notes July 1, 2021

Or, Homo Hominid Lupus.

Croupier: Not a great movie but it’s rare to see a depiction of the kind of high-adrenaline, intense-focus job where you get off the clock and you’re literally shaking. Just kind of hanging out, smoking a cigarette, flirting, cooking dinner, shaking.

An American Werewolf in London: Surprisingly Jewish. Could’ve been lots more Jewish! …No, I mean, the climactic action sequence with the car crashes is intense, and the hallucinations and gnarly ghosts give this movie an unexpected Smorgasbord of Horror feel (also Smorgasbord of Practical FX), but I think I saw it too late in life to get the full impact. On a 1980s cultural note, when the werewolf is attacking a dude in the London Underground, you can see a poster in the background which I’m 80% sure is for a crisis pregnancy center.

Sunset Boulevard: Rewatch. This thing is just kind of there for the first 20 minutes, the set-up. Then Gloria Swanson opens her FACE and it’s like standing in front of a firehose of gothic camp. I don’t think William Holden is bad at his job but she swallows him like a shark. Amazing set, amazing gowns (Edith Head, natch), nice men’s suits also, the camera captures everybody’s eyes, the longing gaze of the normal woman and the fixed wild stare of the entrancing one.

Project Nim: In the late 1970s, a scientist decides to prove that other animals can use language by giving a family a baby chimpanzee to raise as one of their own. The “mom” (the scientist’s former lover but I’m sure that won’t be relevant!) bonds immediately with the apeling… the “dad” not so much. They teach the chimp to wear clothes, and to use the toilet (more or less), and to sign “hug” and “berries” and “play”; the chimp loves the family cat, and also enjoys it when the humans share their booze and weed, which they do because it’s the ’70s and you wouldn’t want to be selfish. The “mom” also, you will be shocked to hear, doesn’t believe in disciplining children, regardless of species. This will end well!

This documentary tells the story of Nim, from the time he was taken from his mother’s arms (his… biological mother) to his death. Victor Morton is right that the filmmaker’s style is very “knockoff Errol Morris” and it sometimes feels pretentious and overplayed, though there are also some great cuts and cues (like both times we see the “human dad’s” hand waving as he sinks beneath the surface of a creek). Victor reads the film as “a brilliant, pitch-black comedy”: a gleeful satire on the hubris of people who think their motives are pure–and that species is just a social construct. I found more notes of tragedy than he did. The filmmaker doesn’t actually hold these foolish humans’ emotions, longings, and aspirations in contempt, even as he exposes how their beliefs and actions and self-deceptions deeply warped a helpless animal’s life.

In a weird way Project Nim reminded me of Election, which I rewatched around the same time–another movie about the interleaving of folly and wickedness. Election is, if anything, less sympathetic! (Which is appropriate for fiction, really. I make people up so I don’t feel so sorry for them.) It’s weird, apparently everyone focuses only on Tracy Flick, and is Tracy Flick good or bad or Hillary Clinton or whatever, and this is wild to me because the movie itself is pretty consistent in arguing that every character is self-deceiving all the way down to the ground, and nobody is ever gonna grow or change. It’s more sympathetic to some of these self-deceivers: the burnout lesbian sister, for example, and to a lesser extent her dumb jock brother. But both of them lie to themselves constantly and neither of them changes in basically any way. It’s all very recognizable: “It was one of those things that just happens,” people say, about adultery they spent months elaborately inching toward.

To me, an Eld, it seems clear now that Election‘s worst character is the narrator/central figure, Jim McAllister, and the second-worst character is Tracy’s mom. It’s more a movie about education than about American democracy or w/e. Tracy is awful but, as BD McClay notes, she is also an actual child. She is really awful, you know, not just in her screechy anxiety but in her absolute self-absorption. You don’t have to pretend she’s secretly not that bad! A huge part of the movie’s narrative thrust is the way McAllister, in accurately identifying Tracy’s folly, exposes his own gargantuan selfishness. (“Thrust”… “exposes”… “gargantuan”… yes I’m saying this guy’s friend, also a grown-ass adult man teacher, fully sleeps with a high-schooler, because Tracy is not actually the villain of this movie.) And he learns nothing!! Neither of them learn anything, which is how you know this movie is about education.

Chimp photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Browse Our Archives