Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2015 5:19 pm 
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Almereyda's stylized presentation of Milgrim seems inevitable, but not brilliant

Michael Almereyda’s portrait of Stanley Milgram and his "obedience" tests invites immediate comparison with Kyle Patrick Alvarez's similarly themed recent movie Stanford Prison Experiment. Everyone prefers Almereyda's film, it would seem, because it's more stylish. I was disappointed in Experimenter and suggest rethinking this judgment. Both Milgrim and Dr. Philip Zimbardo carried out experiments, or simulations, that were clearly abusive to the volunteers and arguably unethical, and both remained lastingly famous and included in psychology textbooks for their landmark efforts. Both troublingly reflect how group psychology can bring ordinary people to do Eichmann-like or Abu Ghraib-like things.

The difference between the two films comes from the nature of the two experiments. Milgrim's isn't very interesting, and calls for jazzing up. He induced volunteer "teachers" to think they were applying progressively more severe and painful electric shocks to a heard but unseen "student." This behavior is compared to Eichmann in the film -- tried in Israel during Milgrim's time. The "obedience study" was repeated over and over with simple variations. It's shocking in its implications, but there's not much to watch. Though Almereyda might have examined it more minutely, he perhaps wisely chooses not to.
The Stanford study involved two teams of young male volunteers thrown together in a mock-up "prison" location, separately assigned the roles of "prisoners" and "guards." This was meant to go on for several weeks but was ended in a few days because it turned so nasty. The Stanford film simply recreates this event and the experimenters' reaction to it -- because it's an event rich in a variety of incidents that makes good theater. There's more to it as an event than Milgrim's setup. Alvarez assembled some of the more interesting young male movie actors of the moment for his recreation, plus Billy Crudup as the somewhat creepy and dishonest Zimbardo.

Almereyda is dealing with a deceptively simple fake setup. The "victim," the "student," is someone Milgrim has hired (the actor looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman: what if there had been more interesting actors besides Sarsgaard involved?). The real victim is the volunteer "teacher" who is induced to violate his or her own morality in giving, they think, electric shocks to someone they hear protesting and crying out in pain. But this volunteer just sits there. It's not very cinematic. Hence, Almeyreda's movie, which ingeniously treats everything from the outset as make-believe, and gives that quality troublingly pervasive. Backgrounds of interiors and exteriors are just giant black-and-grey photographs. Unlike the overwrought Zimbardo-Crudup, Milgrim-Sarsgaard seems more like an articulate blank, whose detachment is further enacted by having him frequently address the camera. This self-reflective approach still seems original, fifty years after the time when it seemed so in fiction.

Milgrim's career was more tricky, because he was banished from the Ivy League to CUNY, while Zimbardo got to stay at Stanford for life. But the trouble with making Experimenter into a biopic is that Milgrim, like Zimbardo, essentially lived off his one landmark experiment for the rest of his (less long) life. It is not clear to me how we are meant to take his relationship with his doggedly supportive wife (a colorless Winona Ryder). Experimenter skates along, taking Milgrim from one place and career situation to another, embroidering with information about the implications of the "obedience studies." Despite its review of Milgrim's post-obedience career and life, the rest of a movie is essentially just a review of the implications of what happens in the first few minutes. The one ironic moment comes when Milgrim's study is dramatized and distorted for television. What we can say is that the 90-minute Experimenter is more economical than the 122-minute Prison Experiment. Perhaps Milgrim's basic work has more scientific clarity than Zimbardo's setup. Sarsgaard is an interesting actor, who's suitably enigmatic here. His enunciation at times seemed unclear.

Perhaps I'm missing something in failing to see the festival blurb's claim that Experimenter depicts "the bohemian-tinged academic world of the 1960s through the 1980s with an economy that Stanley Kubrick might have envied." Experimenter may be clever, but Stanford Prison Experiment is a more involving watch. Both are disturbing, interesting, and instructive. Neither is a great movie.

Experimenter, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance; over a dozen other fesivals. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival. US theatrical release 16 October 2015. (Metacritic rating 81%.)

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