Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Closing Night

Okay, finally it's finished. The closing night gala, after numerous thank-yous and congratulations, was EXPERIMENTER. It's a playful and engaging take on Stanley Milgram, of the infamous obedience experiments. In brief, it's an experiment where one person is chosen as a "teacher" and one as a "learner." The experiment is supposed to be about using pain (in the form of electric shocks) to increase learning. The learner is in a different room, and as the "teacher" quizzes him from a set of simple memory questions, if the learner gets it wrong the teacher shocks him. The thing is, there is no actual shock. The learner is a researcher, and the teacher is the subject of the experiment. Almost always, the teacher will increase the strength of the shocks beyond a marked dangerous line and while hearing the learner scream in pain. Not because he's a psychopath, not because he's mean. But because a man in a lab coat asked politely.

Obviously the elephant in the room (literally visualized as an elephant walking around the room behind Milgram) is that this is how the Nazis committed such horrors. But the movie goes beyond that to explore the man Milgram himself. While he's most famous for the obedience study (and gives a thorough defense of his methods in many of the breaking-the-fourth-wall interludes) it's really the portrait of a clever and inventive experimenter. Before the obedience study, he did envelope-drop studies. Drop envelopes with postage paid and addressed to either random names or places like the Communist Party of America. People will mail the random named ones, but not the communist ones...proving that Americans don't like commies. He expanded that to include dropping ones addressed to Black organizations in white neighborhoods and white supremacist ones in black neighborhoods. No surprise, people were not eager to help out their perceived opponents. And that's the thing about the obedience experiments. It follows in a line of interesting and clever experiments he performed, but all of the others had the expected results. This one was thoroughly unexpected and dramatically changed how we understand how humans respond to authority.

Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Milgram, and Winona Ryder likewise as his wife. And director Michael Almereyda keeps it all moving along briskly with surprising moves (like the literal manifestation of the elephant in the room, along with other clever formal tricks.) In a way, I feel like Almereyda sees something of a kindred spirit in Milgram--a man who uses clever tricks to reveal something about humanity. And in a way EXPERIMENTER is an experimental film. But just as importantly, it's a fantastically entertaining look at a fascinating man.

And then it was all over except the drinking at the after party. And there was plenty of that, but I don't think I need to get into that.

Woo hoo, SFIFF 2015 is finally over!!!

Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,526

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