Saturday, December 12, 2015

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015)

Please Continue, Teacher
The Man in the Glass Booth

I think, by now, just about everyone has seen, in one form or another, the film Stanley Milgram made about his controversial 1962 "Obedience Study" at Yale (if not, it is provided below), even if they don't remember the name, the implications are embedded in people's consciousnesses. In it, Milgram, a clinical psychologist and the son of immigrants who'd escaped the Nazis, wanted to see just how far someone would go in following orders—at the time of the studies, Adolph Eichmann had been on trial and executed for war-crimes and the phrase "I was only following orders" was at the top of everyone's mind and conscience.

He was teaching at Yale (Milgram, not Eichmann) which played a part in the experiment as the college was prestigious enough for people to take it seriously and even be intimidated by it a bit. Two men are brought into a room with the clinician in a gray lab coat (Milgram chose gray, so "the face" of the experiment wouldn't be associated with medicine). By lot, one of the subjects is chosen as "the teacher" and the other, "the learner" and they're told that it's an experiment for learning under pressure. "Mr. Learner" is led into a sound-proof room and briefly given a list to memorize and is then attached to electrodes.
"The Teacher" is then led into the larger test-room, with a large machine with a bank of switches. He's informed that he must ask the learner over two-way radio to choose the correct answer of the word-pairs from a choice of four possibilities and must administer an electric shock for every wrong answer, and, just to demonstrate, he is given a mild electric shock as an example. Each wrong answer the "learner" gives is met with a higher value of electric shock from mild to extremely strong. If the learner continues to give wrong answers, the highest value of electric shock is repeated until the man in the room gets them all right.
All right. Of course, the experiment has nothing to do with learning, it has everything to do with if "the teacher" will go on with the experiment, delivering higher and more painful shocks to the man in the room. "That" man is a plant—an actor who plays the part, even questioning whether the shocks will affect his heart condition. He never receives any shocks. He has a tape recorder which will play designated reactions to the shocks from annoyed "Ow's" to screams of pain and howls of protest. "The learner" is not being tested. "The teacher" is.
And what Milgram and his researchers want to know from their subjects is: how far will they go? The subjects are made extremely uncomfortable by the job they have to do, and the reactions from the next room create a conflict—do the job or not? If they protest (and they inevitably do) Dr. Gray-Coat has a script that merely says "Please continue, Teacher." The more protests from the "teacher," the more insistent the clinician becomes, telling the "teacher" "once the experiment's begun, you must continue to the end" or "you have no choice, teacher." What Milgram wanted to see was—at what point will the "teacher" stop administering shocks? And why? At what point will the REAL test subject stop following orders for Man, for Science, for Yale?
What Milgram discovered was (no pun intended) shocking: in the baseline experiment—the one everybody uses as the example, although Milgram's results altered as he altered the conditions of the experiment—66% of the test subjects took the experiment all the way to the end. Despite the recorded pleas for help and screams of pain. Despite the real subjects' misgivings and protests, fully two-thirds of the them continued right to the "extremely dangerous" shocks, even after the protests stopped, and the only thing coming from the booth was deathly silence. 66%.

So much for our "better angels." So much for "free will." The study showed a fragile weakness in human-kind—we, singularly, are more than susceptible to a mob mentality. In our self-preservation, or selfishness, we will give up any morality, any higher teaching, any nobility or philosophy and just "go with the crowd" when confronted with greater numbers or authority. The "little voice in our head" can be shouted down by volume or magnitude. Given that, "what's a Heaven for?"
It's depressing and alarming. And significant. The study has been controversial (as the film points out) because it is, after all, based on a lie. No one's getting shocked. No one's getting hurt. The study is not about what the subjects of the study are being told it is. And they are the ones being tested, not the man in the booth. Also, the authority of the clinician is fabricated—he merely states that the test must go on and that once started, it cannot be interrupted, the most specious of lies. And the subject—the real subject—gets caught in an ethical quandary of doing the right thing: do I stop for the man in the booth, or do I keep going because I'm being told to? None of us have to pull a switch on a guy, but how often does your boss say to you: "do it or you get canned?" For the sake of self-preservation—maybe getting ahead—you do it, and file the misgivings in the back of the junk-drawer. You put away the conflict with a drink after work or a weekend on the boat that conflict bought you. As they say in Spotlight: "I was just doing my job!" To which the bitter reply is: "Yeah, you and everybody else."
The podcast "Radiolab" (highly recommended, by the way) did a segment called "Who's Bad?" about the nature of evil and the Milgram study figures significantly in the last half of it. In that, Alex Halgram makes the case that maybe these people aren't "evil" but they continue because they think they're doing something significant for science. They see it as a good thing. So, that proves they're not "bad people." Right? Great. The SS thought they were doing something significant for Germany and the "White Race." So, they rounded up the folks who didn't meet that criteria, segregating them from the rest of Society, all the better to surreptitiously put them on trains where they could be summarily eliminated. 6 million of them. But, their intentions were good, thinking of the country, right? So, that doesn't make them "bad people," does it? 

OF COURSE, IT DOES! The test subjects for the Milgram study might bot be evil. They might not be bad. But their better natures are certainly over-ridden by an expedient concern that replaces their instinct to not harm a fellow human being. There's a big difference between Yale and Auschwitz, and the conflicts of the subjects are certainly part and parcel of the results, but still 66% took it all the way to the end.
So, 66%.  Something to think about while you're in rush-hour traffic, or dealing with any sort of bureaucracy, or when considering giving someone your social security number.

This would all be dry, dry stuff (as in the video below) if not for the telling of the tale. Writer-director Michael Almereyda focuses on the man who came up with the experiment, the implications of it and the effect the results and the criticism of the study had on him. Held together by a low-key bravura (if there can be such a thing) performance by Peter Sarsgaard, who is on-screen for most of the film, and spends a good percentage of it breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, describing his experiment and its ramifications, his motivations, and inner thoughts on the journey. 
That running commentary to us is just a part of the unusual (and frequently amusing) approach Almereyda takes to the material, as he plays with the film form, letting go of reality, or, if you will, going against the dictates of traditional film-making techniques demanding recreations that are realistic. For instance, frequently, he'll stage a scene in front of a deliberately phony backdrop that isn't even in color (really, why should it be?) and might be a deliberate statement about going against convention. It's surprising, but Almereyda does other clever things, as well.
For instance, there's a couple scenes where Milgram is ambling down a Yale corridor and there is the usual mattering of extras passing through the shot, ignoring that Milgram is talking directly to us (already a break against picturing reality) when an elephant comes walking down the corridor behind him, impossible to ignore, an obvious "elephant in the room."
Or, in a post-study interview with some subjects, three women who participated start talking about their reactions to the test, sipping coffee out of styrofoam cups. Their reactions differ slightly, but when one strongly objects that she was duped, the others fall in line and begin to sip simultaneously. Duped, maybe, but the point about influence lingers.

There's a less obvious one. Once Milgram and his wife Sasha (played by Winona Ryder) start to have kids, their son appears in a couple scenes—in green make-up. Odd. But, if that's perplexing, check out what he's wearing: a black turtle-neck and suit—he's dressed as Frankenstein, indicating (once the controversy over the experiment settles in) that Milgram has created a monster. Now, that's funny. And the point is made without words.
This is not only good film-making, it is fun film-making that livens up a film about a serious subject, while keeping on parallel tracks about the significance of the man and his work while keeping it entertaining. Experimenter is getting a limited release—it will blaze no trails at the box-office (in fact, it only played for one night at a local art-house here) and, actually, is available online already. It is, itself, experimental, but is considerable food for thought, whether one is concerned with good ethics or good film-making.

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