If we define postmodernism as art which questions and critiques established formal rules, Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter might accurately be described as post-postmodern. It deconstructs the impulse towards deconstruction; instead, Almereyda asks his audience why they consider some rules worthy of clinging to and not others. The obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram may be the subject, but Experimenter’s view of cinema has the inverse thesis. Milgram wonders why humans are compelled to obey, but Experimenter wonders why—when it comes to film—we often don’t.
If you aren’t aware of it, the Milgram experiment went like this: two participants are brought into a room and assigned the role of either a “teacher” or a “learner.” The learner goes into an adjacent room and is hooked up to a machine which delivers electric shocks. Milgram tasks the teacher with reading test questions to the learner and administering shocks of increasingly high voltage for every wrong answer, all while the researcher takes notes behind them.
Milgram tells the teacher that the study concerns the effect of negative reinforcement on learning ability, but this is an illusion. In reality, the teacher is the subject, and what’s being observed is his or her willingness to cause another person physical harm just because they are told to do so. The learner is not hooked up to a machine. The cries of pain heard through the wall come from a recording device. Milgram’s results showed that most people continued to shock the learner against their better judgement, going all the way up to the highest possible voltage, simply because the researcher told them to.
To call Experimenter a film about obedience would be trite, but not entirely inaccurate. Almereyda is more precisely interested in what we will tolerate in a cinematic context. He and cinematographer Ryan Samul shoot several early scenes with brutally obvious rear-projection effects. It’s as if the film is daring us to call it out on its fakery. What it’s really doing is exploring the hypocrisy of that accusation. Why do we call the rear-projection fake but accept the half-formed set in front of it as real? This is the sort of idea which Experimenter forces us to consider, and it doesn’t just nudge us in this direction. The film’s most admirable aspect may be the bluntness with which it presents these concepts.
As Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard often speaks directly to the camera. In one such instance, an elephant follows him down a hallway, out-of-focus in the background. Why is this instance of surrealism less acceptable than the fourth-wall-breaking monologue it accompanies? We think that cinematic realism is a distinct line in the sand, but Experimenter reveals our conception of it as the result of the medium’s conditioning. Film has trained us to accept certain things as appropriately unreal in a cinematic context. Experimenter is curious as to why that’s the set of rules we choose to obey.
Perhaps, as with the subjects of the experiment, this regards power dynamics between art and audience. In the experiment, people justified their continued administration of shocks with the reassurance that the scientist in the room with them would take full responsibility. They were comfortable following the rules if they believed that they had no control over them. On the flip-side, viewers enjoy holding films to particular standards of realism because they believe they are in a position of power over art. This makes it easy to critique films for disobeying our set of rules, but isn’t this indicative of our own suffocating obedience to some abstract cinematic standard? Experimenter seems to think so, and its deliberate fakery is a challenge to this adherence.
I don’t want to lean too hard on a reading of Experimenter that compares it to the experiments themselves. That seems too easy. But as Milgram says late in the film, “The camera begins to attract its own subject matter. It’s not a passive recorder.” The film does indeed take an active role with its audience, and that role is undeniably reminiscent of Milgram’s experiment. We’re brought in with the promise of a biopic, Milgram being the subject. Little do we know that Experimenter is making us its subject, putting us behind its own two-way mirror. It’s an electrifying experience to watch a film and be so openly confronted by it.
Eventually, Milgram visits the set of a TV movie based on a bastardized version of his life story. Recognizable actors Kellan Lutz and Dennis Haysbert play recognizable actors William Shatner and Ossie Davis. “There are times when your life feels like a bad movie,” Milgram says to the camera, “but nothing can prepare you for your life actually becoming a bad movie.” In this case, Milgram places a value judgement on cinematic truth, even as he shatters his own film’s adherence to reality by speaking directly to the audience. Experimenter’s deadpan tone masks a thrilling desire to push the boundaries of its medium and its audience.
In this case, the content of the film relies on an implicit surrounding context. The biopic as a construct has a lot of baggage with regard to the line between fiction and fact. Fidelity to truth (or lack thereof) is often the primary concern of biopic viewers and potentially the cause of controversy. But this means that, going into a biopic, we think we know what we’re in for.
A few weeks after seeing Experimenter, I saw Steve Jobs with some friends. Afterwards, they discussed the way that a particular scene diverged from their expectations, and agreed that in real life this event must have happened a little differently. But I was thinking about Experimenter, and about the likelihood that nothing we see in Steve Jobs actually happened. I mean this in a literal sense—these are actors in costumes reading lines on sets—and a more abstract one.
How can we possibly trust a film to present us with reality or truth when we can consciously understand that it’s all fake? Experimenter wants an answer from us just as much as we want an answer from it. There will need to be a lot more films with its level of intelligence and curiosity before we come up with one. It’s a galvanizing piece of cinema, and it’s not likely to leave my thoughts any time soon.
Movie Verdict: Win