Friday, February 15, 2019

Experimenter (2015)

The Stanley Milgram Story, USA, 98 minutes
Director / writer: Michael Almereyda
Photography: Ryan Samul
Music: Bryan Senti
Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, John Palladino, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram is best-known today for practically the first serious experiment he ever conducted, examining obedience to authority, and especially for the ethical controversy that followed and still dogs the results. Director and writer Michael Almereyda defines his movie almost self-consciously as a biopic, however eccentric, however experimental, but like Milgram himself he is forced to return again and again to the obedience experiment and controversy. Milgram, who died in 1984 at the age of 51, researched far more widely than just that one experiment. One of the pleasures of Experimenter is its depiction and discussion of those experiments, ingenious attempts to uncover the warp and woof of human personality and social interaction: the small-world experiment (which gave us the term and concept "six degrees of separation"), the lost letter experiment, the looking up experiment, the familiar stranger experiment, and others.

But the obedience trials are what Milgram remains known for, and indeed that is likely the most profound and important experiment he ever conceived, if only because the results were so depressingly surprising to everyone. The experiment is a bit complicated, because it involves deception of the test subject (the source of the ethical controversy). Experimenter makes its first order of business a detailed enactment of that test procedure. A subject is told he or she will take the "teacher" role in a learning experiment that involves inducing increasingly more intense electrical shocks to the "learner" when the learner gives a wrong answer to a question. The learner is actually a confederate of the experimenters, sitting in another room out of sight of the teacher, playing a tape recording of himself groaning in pain as the shocks become stronger. When the subject shows reluctance to continue, the authority figure, another confederate of Milgram's pretending to be the learning experiment test administrator, tells the subject that the test must go on and he the administrator will take all responsibility. The subjects, presumably thus relieved of the responsibility, continued administering shocks all the way to the highest levels in 60% to 70% of the trials. Later tests in the 2000s replicated these results.

In the early '60s, when this experiment was still in the proposal phase, Milgram was nearly unable to secure funding and other necessary support because the universal assumption was that no one would keep administering shocks after a certain point. It was taken as common sense that the test would only confirm the obvious. Instead, it proved very nearly the opposite. But it's what happened next—the ethical controversy—that floored Milgram and many others. This argument is based on presumed emotional harm caused by a subject's realization that the impulse to obedience trumped his or her humanitarian impulses when it came to the clinch. The experience verges on trauma, it is argued, and at the very least it is cruel. This does have some truth to it. As Experimenter cycles through scenes of obedience experiment subjects, it's clear a good many of them are going through a good deal of anguish. The one example shown of the 30% to 40% who decline to continue, called "the Dutchman" (Anton Yelchin in a perfect seven-minute performance), obviously has to strain and reach deep for the resources to decline. This is the problem. As Milgram puts it, with a good deal of anguish, "Why is the Dutchman's defiance the anomaly instead of the norm?"

I've had arguments myself with people who take the position that the obedience test was unethical, and shouldn't have been conducted at all. But think about this. Before Milgram ran it through, the universal assumption was that virtually no one would fail the moral test. Instead, a majority failed it—in an electoral contest, 60% to 70% would be a landslide. And practically no one suspected these results would happen. That's how ignorant we were or are about the human impulse to obedience. The scenes of the Dutchman's resistance are tense but not unfamiliar. They reminded me of business meetings when someone is making a hopeless argument for something conventional wisdom has long since foredoomed. Nothing about the experience in the experiment is exotic or unfamiliar. We see confrontations and evasions like these all our lives.

So among other things Experimenter was an interesting return to the frustrations of arguing this one out with the people who believe it was unethical—it appears you still can't get away from that in this realm of social psychology, specifically Milgram, specifically the obedience experiment. Experimenter was also part of one of those movie things that seems to happen every few years, in which two movies with almost identical themes come out within months or weeks of one another (Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998, for just one example). The uninspired and literalist (based on true events!) Stanford Prison Experiment also came out in 2015, focusing on a social psychology experiment from the early '70s in which test subjects were randomly assigned guard and prison roles in imprisonment conditions and things went haywire in less than a week. A better movie on that particular experiment came from Germany in 2001, Das Experiment, though part of what makes it better is that it so gleefully uses the actual Stanford prison experiment results as mere springboard.

Experimenter deserves better than to be discussed with The Stanford Prison Experiment. Like Das Experiment it probes to the heart of its subject. Stanley Milgram was an experimenter, that's who he was, a restless and creative social scientist, motivated to the obedience experiment by the horrors of Nazi Germany, but whose interests lay well beyond that. Like Milgram, the film itself is full of playful experimentation, as Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram often addresses us directly through the camera, commenting ironically on transpiring events. Sarsgaard is excellent by the way, as is a bevy of other players in small parts—Yelchin, as mentioned, John Palladino as the faux test administrator, Jim Gaffigan as the "learner" victim, and John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning, and others as shook-up test subjects. Director Almereyda also resorts to an inspired use of rear projection, leaning into the period piece aspects in unusual ways as well as creating a pleasantly confusing sense of disorientation. I'm not sure what Winona Ryder and the love story are doing here—box office considerations, probably, but they never get in the way. Sarsgaard and especially Milgram's story are what make it.

Top 10 of 2015
1. Experimenter
2. 45 Years
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Inside Out
5. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
6. The Walk
7. Creed
8. Sicario
9. Dope
10. Amy

Other write-ups: Brooklyn, Eye in the Sky, The Hateful Eight, Hitchcock / Truffaut, The Martian, Spotlight, Truth, The Witch

1 comment:

  1. As seems to be the typical w/ your more contemporary top tens I've seen exactly half your list, not including, w/ a twinge of embarrassment, your top pick. Now in the queue.