The Experimenter
Experimenter opens Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema.
Experimenter opens Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema.

Long time readers are familiar with my biopic rant by now. Regardless of the occasional exception (I’m still looking at you, Hannah Arendt), Seal’s First Law of Cinema states emphatically that biopics turn the lives of the most remarkable people into the most unremarkable films.

At first, that seems the path likely to be taken by Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, opening on Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema – until an elephant, quite literally, walks into the room. You’ve been put on notice that this is no ordinary biopic.

Experimenter is the story of famed psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), focusing primarily – but not exclusively – on his famed ‘obedience to authority’ research. Sarsgaard plays the scientist with a deadpan earnestness, even when, on two separate occasions, the aforementioned pachyderm saunters casually in the background as Milgram (breaking the fourth wall) explains his work to the audience.

The elephant, however, isn’t the film’s only departure — metaphorical or otherwise — from reality. It’s been many years since I’ve seen process screen work as glaringly artificial as that seen here, and black and white backdrops that pop up from time to time during the film’s early going are also clearly intentional reminders that we’re watching a movie.

As the film proceeds through Milgram’s life, similar reminders of cinema’s irreality keep popping up. It’s not until Milgram tells us that “illusion can set the stage for revelation, which is how art works” that we understand Almereyda’s point: the lessons of this man’s research are too important to be forgotten or relegated to a routine feature.

In sum, this is a very fine film, not least thanks to Sarsgaard’s understated, puckish performance as Milgram. Also noteworthy is Winona Ryder’s welcome appearance as spouse Sasha: it’s good to see her doing worthwhile work again.

If you’re keen to make the acquaintance of another remarkable person, consider The Amazing Nina Simone, a documentary opening on October 23rd at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. A labor of love for filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman (not the same guy responsible for ‘70s horror flicks Squirm and Blue Sunshine; thanks for asking), this marks the first feature length examination of the legendary musician’s life. Director Lieberman will be attending the 7PM showing on Saturday, October 24th for a Q & A session.

For years I never understood Simone’s appeal: the so-called ‘high priestess of soul’ didn’t sing soul music (at least, not as I understood it), and the LPs I heard seemed patchy at best. I’ve since gained a greater appreciation of both her music and her spirit, and The Amazing Nina Simone is a worthy tribute.

There are interviews aplenty with friends and family (it seems most of Simone’s siblings are still alive), perhaps most remarkably with a 100-year old piano teacher named Eleanor Sokoloff. Sokoloff was on the faculty of Curtis Institute of Music, which infamously turned Simone away in 1951, and remains on its faculty today. Someone needs to make a film about her as soon as possible!

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...