Monday, August 10, 2015

NY Film Festival 2015: Experimenter, An Exploration In Negative Preconceived Notions?

Central to the Michael Almereyda biopic Experimenter, delving into the controversial early 1960s 'obedience experiments' of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and in which he set out to demonstrate passive human compliance with the oppression and torture of others historically, is Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's quote uttered by Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and emphasized in the course of the narrative. Namely,  'Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.'

If only this overly reverential, strangely decontextualized cinematic exploration of human behavior, whether on the part of Milgram or the filmmaker himself possibly setting out to prove questions he had decided upon beforehand did so. But that appears to present a different sort of irony. That is, the reactive rather than proactive psychological notion, whether that of a scientist or movie director, of faith versus factual inquiry.

And I say this - disclaimer alert - as a film critic rather than a Milgram scholar, and as such may have missed some of his many assertions and deductions along the way. So any issues that I challenge here, are primarily addressing the movie itself. And what may appear to be present or absent in its rather uncritical embrace of Milgram, despite those colleagues and opponents challenging his assertions through the years.

Milgram's unconventional psychological experiments involved hiring subjects to submit electric shocks to an unseen 'learner' they initially meet, and who in another room reacts loudly in pain when 'punished' for giving wrong answers or none at all, to a series of questions. The subjects themselves are determined to yield to authority and continue administering increasing shock voltage, because they're intimidated into obeying authority over empathizing with the victims in pain (actually a tape recording of a hired actor played in the other room).

And Milgram, an American Jew driven emotionally in his experiments by the horrors of the Holocaust, repeatedly concluded on this basis that humans are primarily a loathsome lot, insensitive to human atrocities out of fear of questioning authority. And the somewhat more fan than filmmaker Almereyda would seem to wholeheartedly agree. So would this by any chance be yet another case of deference to the authority, of a prominent scientific public figure as well?

Crafting the film and the personality of Milgram in a more playful than probing light in which magical realism oddly and repeatedly upstages sobering reflections regarding the dark subject matter on hand, Almereyda would seem to be disregarding a whole menu of presenting issues. Including for starters, the fact that two thirds of the subjects responded to the experiments  in a manner satisfactory to Milgram.

But what about the other third - a rather large figure that might entail a different sort of conclusion. For instance, the fact that rebels and revolutionaries who fearlessly push human progress forward historically, along with the heroic masses who join up with them, are never in the majority. But without whose instincts and qualities we'd still all be living prehistoric lives. Why no study as well of those who do question authority and why? Perhaps another unintended irony as to where authority is challenged, but where Milgram may have feared to tread.

And at this point, I offer some intriguing speculation, that such a subsidiary inquiry may have made for some murky waters beyond simplistic pronouncements. Such as the rather conformist looking human subjects presented in the film. If Milgram's studies extended into the subversive '60s, where were all those masses of anti-war, civil rights anti-racist and feminist activists to choose from? Or say study, as a major mass movement historical moment?

And what about an exploration of the herd instinct itself, without which no species, human or otherwise, would survive on the planet. And while conformity and that tribal instinct can and has been misguided and reprehensible throughout history, it's an instinct nevertheless, and primarily one of the most basic survival instincts of all life on earth.

Then there's the question left hanging of the Holocaust victims who first inspired Milgram. Why no explanation of how those victims then became aggressive victimizers of the Palestinians in Israel. And ruthlessly engaging in genocidal behavior of their own, with no lessons learned from history.

And finally, what about these actors in Experimenter along with the filmmaker, all willing 'participants' in that dubious enterprise known as Hollywood. And in some sense, obedient to that standard of moviemaking there enforcing repeatedly ad nauseum, violence on screen as entertainment. Case closed.

Though one Vietnam War era observation by Sarsgaard's Milgram in Experimenter, does hold chilling, conclusive weight. With his devastating insight at one point that 'the results are disturbing that one can't be protected in US society from a malevolent authority.'

More information about the NY Film Festival 2015 is online at:

Prairie Miller

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations

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