Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Failed Experiments: Experimenter and The Stanford Prison Experiment

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story.

In May 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, first paired two randomly chosen subjects, a “teacher” and a “learner,” supposedly to study the effect of punishment on memory. The learner sat in a separate room with wires on his forearm, the teacher at a box equipped with switches set to ascending voltages. The teacher read a series of word matches, and the subject was to repeat random matches from memory. An officious man in a lab coat instructed the teacher to administer a shock if the learner was incorrect, and to raise the voltage for each successive error. From the learner’s room, very soon, came cries of pain, pleas for release, and finally silence. Only then was the teacher told that the shocks had been false, the learner an actor, and the experiment a ruse to see if and to what extent ordinary people would inflict pain under orders. Ultimately, 65 percent of the teachers went to the highest shock level, while an even larger number went at least to the “dangerous” level.

Ten years later, Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, randomly divided a group of college-age males into “guards” and “prisoners.” A mock prison—three cells, a hallway “yard,” a closet “hole”—was constructed in the bowels of an academic building; the cells were bugged and the hallway surveilled by video. The prisoners were arrested, fingerprinted, taken blindfolded to the prison, stripped, deloused, and dressed in loose smocks sewed with ID numbers. The guards were given opaque sunglasses, matching uniforms, and nightsticks. Within a day, guards had begun to mistreat prisoners verbally and psychologically. Within three days, prisoners were showing signs of extreme stress; two had to be released early. The abuse escalating, Zimbardo shut it all down. A study intended to run two weeks had to be terminated after six days.

By some odd coincidence, the professors who designed and supervised the two most alarming experiments in postwar American psychology were classmates at the same Bronx high school. It’s also coincidence, seemingly, that this year’s Sundance Film Festival hosted the premiers of dramatic films based on both men’s work. The Stanford Prison Experiment was released in July, while Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story is just out. Admirably tackling the question posed to filmmakers by any fascinating real-life event—How do I make a movie out of this?—each tries to wrest narrative and metaphor from scientific inquiry, closed environments, and base human tendency. Presumably the releases were staggered to prevent the films from canceling each other out, but their only real overlap is the disturbing nature of the results examined in each. (And, I suppose, those long-ago Bronx classrooms.)

Billy Crudup and Olivia Thirlby in The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, and starring Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter is an interiorized quasi-fantasy that spans decades and treats its subject as a species of artist whose experimental “works” have a discernible thematic unity. Tonally it veers between the objective, the surreal, and the slightly off-kilter; Milgram often breaks space and time to address us directly, sometimes about future events—even his own death. Conversely, Stanford, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and starring Billy Crudup, is, save for the occasional resort to slow motion or surging music, straight docudrama. Its progress is strictly linear, and both narrative and aesthetic work toward a realism that insists on period accuracy while allowing for plot complications which, although factual, nonetheless fulfill the docudrama template.

As approaches to the filming of history, psychology, and the experimental paradigm, the movies could hardly be more different. Take the beards. Sarsgaard, as the middle-aged Milgram, wears facial hair that looks, literally, like a carpet clipping pasted to his jaw. Framed from behind, Sargaard glances to the right, then to the left, so that we may see the thing from both angles: clearly the falsehood is being foregrounded. Conceivably, that choice speaks to the principle of deception—upon which Milgram’s obedience experiment depended completely, and later experiments somewhat; but if the false beard is meant to so speak, it gives the wrong answer to the right question, inasmuch as the obedience experiment depended on successful deception (or what Milgram thought of as revelatory illusion, as in a play). In Stanford, on the other hand, Crudup’s Zimbardo sports a jet-black Van Dyke just as convincingly true to 1971 style as the wide neckties and abstract-expressionist office art. His beard, unlike Milgram’s, is just another piece of realism.

Experimenter presents us with several similar puzzles: the rear-projection of monochromatic, one-dimensional backdrops in dialogue scenes; the casting which calls out first-rate, too-little-seen actors like Anthony Edwards and John Leguizamo for brief appearances in generic roles; the recurrence, in different contexts, of “Some Enchanted Evening” as suggestive soundtrack; the appearance of Lori Singer as one character early on and a different, random and unrelated character later; the silent but full-size elephant that repeatedly stalks Milgram down a hallway as he lectures the camera. Though at first these seem mere obscurantist touches, bits of artful perversity, there’s actually very little about Experimenter that can’t be at least theoretically tied to a theme the film seems to track—themes, again, of deception; of interaction between strangers; of the reality-fantasy hybrid that might constitute a brilliant experimenter’s normal state of mind; of what Milgram calls the “common human complaint—the feeling that we’re all cut off, alienated, and alone.” But none of this feels very weighty, either in the moment or later, when the pieces are connected in the mind. The connections are clever; they make you work a bit; they explain a lot. But the film, instead of being tightened by them, stays slack in the memory. It’s the difference between “Oh, right” and “Oh … right.”

Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard.
Experimenter is imaginative without being audacious, explicable without being coherent. Though clearly driven by fascination and a desire to understand, Almereyda doesn’t reach a real reckoning with his subject. My only previous exposure to him was the documentary William Eggleston in the Real World (2005), about the Memphis photographer—another portrait of a creative eccentric who sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. But this fantasized Milgram is too indistinct to center his own portrait the way Eggleston did his (mostly by mumbling and shuffling). That’s partly because there’s too much that Almereyda’s screenplay touches on without really shaping—such as the filming of The Tenth Level, a horrible 1975 TV movie starring William Shatner as a shock experimenter and Ossie Davis as his faculty ally, on which Milgram served as consultant. These recreations (with Kellan Lutz as Shatner and Dennis Haysbert as Davis) add nothing but pop-culture whimsy, Seventies camp, and a few minutes of rather vapid, indeterminate talk; apparently the episode was too good not to recreate, even if Almereyda couldn’t quite figure how to make it mean anything. Peter Sarsgaard, such a passive, abstracted actor to begin with, is another reason the movie doesn’t take hold. At his best in secondary parts in movies like Boys Don’t Cry and Garden State—where his passivity hid depths that flared up unnervingly and unexpectedly—here Sarsgaard is soft-eyed and soft-edged, muffled and passionless.

Experimenter eases the sting of Milgram’s shock with an excess of undisciplined fantasy. The Stanford Prison Experiment shuns fantasy and resolves to be hard-hitting. Apart from a brief prelude and a post-study epilogue, it is limited to the original six-day time-frame. Much of the talk is transcribed from the videotapes that documented the experiment; details of scene, costume, and hairstyle are assiduously observed. Acting and dialogue are naturalistic. The pace is that of a forced march.

It’s a remarkably cohesive and sensible piece of filmmaking. All the elements work together, all the joints are tight. The cinematography and set design effectively play the cold, bright experimental space against the relatively ambiguous darkness and softness of academic lounges and offices. Billy Crudup, though he has almost no character to play, holds the center credibly, and the mostly unfamiliar actors playing guards and prisoners are remarkably fine (though Michael Angarano, the doomed skateboarder from Lords of Dogtown, lays it on thick as the most creatively sadistic of the guards). Even the obligatory insertions of interpersonal conflict—the ethical protests of Zimbardo’s girlfriend, who is also his colleague; Zimbardo’s increasingly paranoid obsession with protecting the experiment at all human cost—are factually based, and thus within the bounds of the docudrama brief. Little or nothing seems to have been invented in the telling.

Stanford has, then, a compelling consistency, a certainty of what it is about, that Experimenter lacks. But that’s not to say it isn’t evasive, contradictory, and finally empty. On one level it posits Zimbardo as the divided hero, both fixated do-gooder and ambitious monomaniac; on another, it fosters a dispiritingly hostile and retrograde view of the intellectual as mad scientist, without having adequately established the reformist-to-radical Sixties politics that inspired the prison experiment in the first place. Zimbardo the idealist is glimpsed only briefly and vaguely, his motives deprived of any ideological or experiential context. “We’re trying to do something … good,” he tells someone early on, eager to convince them—and, for all we know, himself. (The movie might also have provided the interesting information that the study’s major funding came from the Office of Naval Research.)

A scene from The Stanford Prison Experiment.
To its credit, Tim Talbott’s screenplay doggedly challenges Zimbardo’s ethics as lead researcher—or, really, his abandonment of ethics, as he repeatedly violates his pact with his subjects by manipulating conditions to maximize the prisoners’ fear and frustration and the guards’ sense of brutal omnipotence. Though it admits this much, the film is unresolved regarding the presence, as consultant to the study, of a real ex-prisoner (Nelsan Ellis), who questions both the simulated prison conditions and the abusive role he is put to as part of a mock “parole board.” This character is based on Carlo Prescott, a San Quentin parolee and prison reformer who in 2005 renounced the Stanford experiment on the grounds that the guards’ behavior was not due to situational factors but rather to prompts from the researchers, based on specific abuses Prescott had described to them. Zimbardo had claimed something very different just the year before, writing that the participants’ “sole source of guidance” was their “prior societal learning of the meaning of prisons, and the behavioral scripts associated with the oppositional roles of prisoner and guard.” But here in 2015, the film (and thereby Zimbardo) acknowledges much of what Prescott said a decade ago—without making it clear to what extent the mea culpa is freely offered, to what extent forced by Prescott’s characterization of the experiment as “a theatrical exercise.” (I suspect a rich drama of ethics could be constructed just out of the Prescott-Zimbardo relationship.)

But the ultimate emptiness of Stanford’s docudramatic success is that it merely acts out its material, it doesn’t transform it. Doesn’t take it lower, higher, farther, render it ineffably other than the prison experiment as we already know it through existing documentary and interpretive sources. The aesthetics of the forced march have their validity, and scrupulous realism its benefits, but the turning of life into art calls for much more—a poetry of technique, feeling, and intellection that says that not everything can be conveyed in an ordered recounting of facts, or captured by getting the hair and clothing right. That there are human layers and existential connections all around us, which we feel, in great part, by way of narratives which make such things perceptible—which transform reality. The imagination to feel and render what lies beneath, between, and within: what Experimenter has in twee overabundance, The Stanford Prison Experiment is starved of.

But whatever they do well or poorly, both films feel, in the end, superfluous. Stanley Milgram supervised Obedience (1965), a documentary shot over the final two days of his original Yale study; his book on it, Obedience to Authority (1974), has never been out of print; and there’s an excellent biography by Thomas Blass called The Man Who Shocked the World (2004). On the prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo wrote and narrated Quiet Rage (1988), a cheesily produced documentary which nonetheless boasts a great deal of the original video footage, post-study interactions between participants, and Zimbardo being questioned on ethics by his own students. The Lucifer Effect (2005), Zimbardo’s magnum opus, recounts the prison experiment in blow-by-blow detail, following its implications through the gut-turning, real-world horrors of Rwanda and Abu Ghraib. Experimenter and The Stanford Prison Experiment augment these readily accessible sources by the fact of their existence, yet add nothing important to them. There were, I believe, good reasons to make these movies. But now that they have been made—one an ambitious failure, the other a redundant success—there seems no very good reason for them to exist. Call them failed experiments in the research lab of art.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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