sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-10-31 03:13 am
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And perhaps our awareness is the first step in our liberation

I have a coat! It is a green corduroy coat, essentially of the style of my late lamented green corduroy jacket; it came slightly too large in key directions and was tailored beautifully for me by Jack Papazian, whom David the projectionist introduced me to. It is warm and well-fitting and it has nearly enough pockets. I wore it when I went out to see a movie with my parents tonight. I will try not to say too much about it; it's not that there are any great twists to the story, at least not if you know anything about the history of social psychology or atrocity, but I do have to sleep. I didn't last night.

It is true that Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015) is not a conventional biopic. It is also true that when one of your benchmarks for biography on film is Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein (1993), a movie is going to need more than an elephant and some rear projection to impress you. Fortunately, that's where the intelligent script, the solid acting, and the playful structure come in. For about five minutes, Experimenter looks like the usual mimetic kind of biography. It's 1961, Yale University, and two middle-aged men are being ushered into a neutrally toned room with some chairs and a small table with some electrical apparatus set up in front of a pane of one-way glass. The brisk-voiced experimenter in the grey lab coat explains the rules: one participant will be randomly selected as the teacher, the other will be assigned the role of the learner, a list of word pairs has been provided to both; the learner will hear the list once and then be tested on it, multiple-choice style. Right answers will be rewarded with the next question. Wrong answers will be rewarded by electric shocks of increasing voltage. The cheery, blustery learner is shown his seat on the other side of the partition, the electrode paste and the contacts that will deliver the jolts—which will cause "no permanent tissue damage," the experimenter reassures the apprehensive teacher. And a light, blunt male voice says conversationally out of nowhere, like a commentary track: "The lab coat. I decided to make it grey. White would seem too medical." The experimenter goes on explaining the procedure; the narrator quotes Kierkegaard. The teacher is requested to experience a small shock himself, just to give an idea of the discomfort he may be obliged to inflict. Gingerly, he extends his arm and the narrator's voice quickens: "This part . . ." It belongs to Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), a dark-haired man sitting behind the mirror with a notebook and a pen and a Styrofoam cup of coffee; he turns away from the glass wall and looks right through the fourth one. "This part's where the experiment really begins."

From here on, all bets on realism and even linearity are off. It's not that the film is wildly impressionistic so much as it insists on its own artificiality, never allowing the audience to buy into the reassuring worldbuilding of period clothing and well-researched technology, historical names dropped at the right moments, an accurately dreadful beard or a Bronx accent brushed up with Ivy League. Some sets are real interiors and exteriors, others are done with rear projection and still photography, supplying a theatrical air to a dinner party or a conversation while driving. The elephant, conversely, is quite real. Her name's Minnie. She enters the room first to underline Milgram's Jewishness and the question of Nazi Germany, the mysterious ease with which ordinary "civilized" people become participants in genocide. Later she seems to stand for the obedience experiment itself, whose controversial reputation follows Milgram so faithfully that when he attempts to break the news of Kennedy's assassination to his class at Harvard, they laugh at what they perceive as a particularly clumsy manipulation—"It's Milgram. It's just another one of his experiments." The same T-junction hallway serves for Yale, Harvard, and CUNY, just dressed a little differently each time. "Some Enchanted Evening" recurs diegetically as both a love theme and rueful self-mockery: "Fools give you reasons, wise men never try . . ." Milgram talks to the camera throughout, like Rod Serling playing Vergil through the Twilight Zone or a magician deconstructing a trick in hopes that his audience won't be fooled a second time. Scenes wrap around others like fragmentary frame-stories, while Milgram enacts his life and comments on it, always keeping the audience in a loop of information to which even his family and colleagues are not entirely privy. He alludes to events that haven't happened yet, even ones he will not survive to see. (The timeline of the movie runs from 1961 through 1984, the year of Milgram's death, and into the present day when the crew of Experimenter reenacted the crowd crystal experiment on a New York City street.) The effect is correctly distancing, reminding the viewer of the permeable distinction Milgram draws between deception and illusion when defending his theatrical methods: "Illusion can set the stage for revelation, to reveal certain difficult-to-get-at truths." We're being shown behind the curtain, the use of Milgram-as-narrator implies. But we're not watching a documentary; we're not watching a real person tell us about their life. Didn't we see that black-and-white blow-up of a dining room with real chairs placed in front of it, real people sitting in them with drinks in hand like actors on a stage? What's being revealed? What aren't we seeing? What stories don't we even realize we're being told, accepting them as automatically as we assume a person in a lab coat with a clipboard has a good reason for asking one test subject to deliver an ostensibly fatal shock to another? By the end of the film, the audience has become so sensitized to mentions of obedience to authority and social pressure and conformity that when one character says casually, "Everybody's doing it," it flashes out at us like a neon sign. If we leave that awareness in the theater, however, and go back to the unquestioned conditioning of our lives, I suspect Michael Almereyda's own experiment will have failed. Then again, Milgram was told he'd find one person in a thousand who complied up to the final 450 volts. 65% of his subjects went all the way. A re-run of the experiment in 2006 yielded nearly identical results. We're really slow at this deprogramming thing.

The internet informs me that I have seen Peter Sarsgaard before in Shattered Glass (2003) and Kinsey (2004); I didn't recognize him and I will watch for him now. His Milgram is an ambiguous, sympathetic, oddly comic figure—relentlessly inquisitive, a dead serious prankster nonplussed at the firestorm his research provokes. He has a director's eye and a showman's instincts, but his body language is all very closed off and his most common expression is a kind of quizzically exasperated deadpan. He makes more eye contact with the camera than with anyone else in the film, unless it's his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder, very good in a role that mostly works by implication) and his children. He cannot be read easily by either the audience or the other characters, most of whom treat his straight face as an opportunity to project their own accusations or apologetics onto him; the film gives very little instruction if any of their interpretations are correct. He's surprised and distressed by the obedience results, but even more so to find himself accused personally and professionally of unethical behavior—torture, petty power games—forced to re-explain his famous experiment to everyone from review boards to strangers in the street. (He's asked almost as often about his last name; he answers first that it means "pomegranate—one of the seven fruits of the Bible" and then that it means that he's Jewish, which is what people really want to know. Sarsgaard himself is not Jewish, a fact which seems wryly lampshaded by the subplot dealing with The Tenth Level, the 1976 CBS TV movie which used Milgram's experiments as a "springboard" for the highly colored story of Professor Stephen Turner—"a bachelor," the married Milgram notes dryly, "and a WASP," played in real life by the Jewish William Shatner, because that is the kind of rabbit hole metafiction falls down into.) He watches Candid Camera with Sasha and admits to the audience that it was an inspiration. He's not resigned to it, but accepts that all of his other work, whether on conformity or connection, will always exist in the shadow of that first, sensational study. I hope it's true that his last words were the ones the film gives him. His widow and children and at least one grandchild participated in the making of Experimenter, which gives me hope.

I think I have honestly lost the ability to write briefly about anything. I recommend this movie; I especially recommend seeing it with and/or while being a psychologist, as my mother the second-generation clinical psychologist who did her graduate work at CUNY enjoyed it greatly and found all references to Solomon Asch hilarious. I have no idea if Almereyda ever saw Wittgenstein, but it's my only other point of comparison for fourth-wall-breaking biographies that mine unexpected absurd humor out of downer subject material and unconventionally endearing protagonists. This revelation brought to you by my intelligent backers at Patreon.

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