Magical Mystery Tour Revisited
Friday 9 p.m. PBS
The day after Christmas in 1967, about a quarter of the British population gathered around the television for the BBC broadcast of a new 55-minute movie by the Beatles called "Magical Mystery Tour." When it was over, and amid a storm of boos, the movie virtually disappeared for 45 years. It will be on TV here for the first time Friday night at 10 p.m. on PBS, following a documentary, "Magical Mystery Tour Revisited," about the making of the film.
What accounts for its negative reception and subsequent disappearance? The explanation can't be that the movie was too psychedelic and full of drug references for TV then or now. It is not about smoking dope or dropping acid, and if anything is more like a dream than a hallucination.
Besides, this was a movie about the Beatles and featuring John, Paul, George and Ringo at a time when Beatlemania was still going strong. And it featured them performing songs like "Fool on a Hill" and other classics from their "Magical Mystery Tour" album. Who wouldn't want to see that? How could such a thing be so bad that it was ignored—or hidden from view—for decades?
In the "Revisited" documentary, Martin Scorsese says that the movie of "Magical Mystery Tour" was ahead of its time. He also claims, apparently sincerely, that it influenced his oeuvre. That's as funny as anything in the film, which is basically a plotless home movie for which the Beatles rounded up some friends, some fan girls, some grannies and a handful of colorful vaudeville-style character actors, put them on a bus and drove them through the English countryside as if they were on working-class holiday.
Yes, the Beatles appear in wizard and other colorful costumes now and then, and in some special-effects sequences. But the most of the time the boys from Liverpool are filmed in their natural state. And it may only be with the passage of years that we can appreciate how tightly bound, how sentimentally attached, they were to their roots in an earlier English age, even as they were being hailed as the vanguard of a new era.
Thursday 9 p.m. HBO
"Project Nim" is one of the most disturbing films you will ever see—if you can bear to watch it to the end. The documentary, a Sundance award winner in 2011, tells the story of a chimpanzee named Nim who was taught sign language in the 1970s as part of research into whether animals can learn language. What the film is really about, though, is the arrogance and stupidity of the humans involved in this crazy scheme.
Crazy is the best way of putting it, because apparently there was nothing criminal about the plan hatched by a Columbia University behavioral psychologist, Herbert Terrace, to take a two-week-old male chimp from his mother and give him to some wealthy hippies to raise in a sprawling New York brownstone. The theory being that if the animal was treated like a human child, he might learn to communicate like one.
Surrogate "mother" Stephanie LaFarge knew even less about primates than her former professor and lover Mr. Terrace. But she thought Nim was adorable and loved cuddling and playing with him. Like the rest of her brood, he was raised as a free spirit with no discipline, which led to constant chaos in the house and lots of destruction.
Ms. LaFarge relates stories from this time accompanied by poignant home movies of little Nim cavorting in the garden, being diapered or lying in her arms. She recalls that as Nim grew he became more and more hostile to her husband, and she seems to have grasped that this was not the instinct of a human child. Although—have I mentioned this yet?—Ms. LaFarge had breast fed little Nim in the beginning.
But her relationship with the chimp was changing. "He just grew more and more powerful, and that was exciting to me," she explains here. Later on (in the list of the gratifications the animal apparently supplied) she says, "He liked alcohol. You'd give him a sip and he'd want more. We gave him a puff on a joint. We didn't have to treat him like a child. We could expose him to the sensations that we enjoyed."
Coming from a certifiable free spirit, this may sound merely delusional. Viewers may be forgiven for wondering how far removed this selfish treatment of a wild animal is from pulling the wings off a fly.
Eventually, inevitably we sense, a new woman came into Mr. Terrace's sights, a young student, Laura Petitto, who was eager to begin the chimp's sign-language training. Soon Nim was taken from the arms of Ms. LaFarge and removed to an empty estate that Columbia owned. He seems to have thrived there for a time, bonding with a patient and affectionate Ms. Petitto, and later other teachers, while learning to sign.
Over the years Nim's "vocabulary" grew to many words. But the film suggests that the program had no scientifically rigorous methodology or system of logs and record keeping. It also strongly suggests that Mr. Terrace was pretty much an absentee professor—that he was there for Nim when cameras were rolling, yet after the chimp matured and became hard to handle, ruthlessly ditched him.
So Nim was shipped back to where he was born at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, managed by a man who carried a cattle prod. There, caged and chained, the chimp was kept sane only by the ministrations of a kindly caretaker or two, especially a man named Bob Ingersol who knew how to sign. Then Nim was sold to an NYU research lab that did experiments on its animals. After word of his fate spread, he was rescued and brought to an animal sanctuary in Texas called the Black Beauty Ranch, where after a period of solitude he found some peace and lived for many years to the age of 26 amid other chimps.
The film explains all that, though I stopped watching with both eyes open when Nim's young teachers began dressing him in his last little outfit for the journey—tranquilized—back to Oklahoma after the project-chief professor was through using him. In the year since "Project Nim" came out, Mr. Terrace has complained that director James Marsh's film unfairly makes him seem unattached to Nim and implies that the language didn't make a contribution to science.
Poor Nim is dead now, gone to a better place. The horror of this film—and what gives it such pain and power—is the realization that after all this time some of the people involved in this awful story still feel no shame.