Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Experimenter: Stanley Milgram Shocks Yale
Stanley Milgram was not a one-hit wonder in the field of social psychology,
but his career arguably peaked in 1961. Yes, he continue to produce original and
even groundbreaking research throughout his professional life, but he would
always work under the shadow of the Yale experiments that bear his name.
Miligram’s life and work are dramatized in an aptly psychologically expressive
fashion in Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter
which opens this Friday in New York.
have heard of Milgram’s work whether you know it or not, but in the early
1960s, plenty of unsuspecting subjects volunteered for his study on obedience
and authority. Each participant agreed to serve as the “Teacher,” whose role is
to administer electric shocks of increasing and potentially lethal power to the
“Learner” for every wrong answer. Despite the pre-recorded screams of pain,
they continued to mete out the punishment, because a man in a lab coat told
high percentage of subjects administering he maximum voltage startle even
Miligram himself. For years, the implications of the test and the underlying
deception are hotly debated. They make Milgram’s name and establish him as an
expert, but he regularly finds himself re-debating his techniques and
assumptions. Of course, his critics did their best to ignore the elephant in
the room, which Almereyda boldly represents with a real elephant trailing
Milgram down hallways. He was after all, the American-born son of Eastern
European Jews, who was understandably fascinated by the Eichmann trial roughly
coinciding with his [in]famous experiments.
Experimenter is a relentlessly
stylized film that deliberately eschews any pretense of verisimilitude. Yet, it
almost has to reject the trappings of conventional drama too accommodate Almereyda’s
comprehensive survey of Milgram’s work and the criticisms he faced. He is a
decidedly cold fish, but his constant fourth wall breaking commentary is
fascinating stuff. Ranging freely between arrogance and defensiveness, Peter
Sarsgaard gives one of the strangest, but still unconventionally effective
performances you will see this year.
it all, we still get a sense of his personality and watch him develop
relatively convincing chemistry with Winona Ryder’s Sasha Menkin Miligram. We
get a sense of him as a husband and family man, who went to work to warn
Americans they could easily carry out any number of atrocities, if they were
duly ordered to while in a compliant “agentic state.”
it takes a while for viewers to banish their reservations and buy into
Almereyda’s rear-screen projections and self-consciously artificial backdrops.
However, the artistry of Ryan Samul’s cinematography and the wonderfully exaggerated
but not quite over period look crafted by production designer Deana Sidney and
art director Andy Eklund is immediately impressive. It is also hard to beat the
surreal eccentricity of Milgram meeting William Shatner and Ossie Davis
(played with fitting attitude by Kellan Lutz and Dennis Haysbert) on the set of
a TV movie based on his experiments.
It is rather encouraging to see a film as
ambitiously cerebral as Experimenter let
loose in theaters. Yet, it comes at an opportune time, when fewer people seem
to have the skills to rigorously question and dissect what the media tells
them. Intellectually challenging and visually playful, Experimenter is a film that engages on multiple levels. Recommended
unruly freethinkers, it opens this Friday (10/16) in New York at the Landmark
Labels: Michael Almereyda, Stanley Milgram