But of course, all fine film criticism involves an anecdote: Following an intensive curriculum covering the Holocaust, teachers and administration at my middle school sanctioned a “forced-labor” simulation whereby students of the 8th grade were divided into three sects. Without notifying students or parents beforehand, the program was introduced suddenly. There was something especially nerve-wracking about having my teacher call upon my classmates, one by one, wrapping a burgundy ribbon on their arm, and saluting their efforts with blasé platitudes. The burgundy ribbons were gone and another set of students called up, where one by one, each student was given a yellow ribbon. The platitudes continued, though the excitement in my teacher’s voice seemed labored; she didn’t tie the ribbon on, but handed it to each student. There were no more yellow ribbons. “All those without a ribbon, come up to my desk” she announced and the ten or so of us left approached her. She tossed a bundle of black ribbons on the floor, advising us to put them on now and to return to our desks. The class was silent; no one knew what was going on.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment opens with the image of typewriter keys. Captured in intense close-up, the type bars suggest confinement. The click and clack of the bygone machine opens to an image of an offset printing press and finally an advertisement outlining a job: for $15.00 a day, male students at Stanford University are requested for a prison study anticipated to last 1-2 weeks. From here we swiftly move to candidates, where interviews between department heads and ephebes are underway. The air of anxiety is brought on by the circumstances of the study. The students here – composed of some of the best young actors working today, from Tye Sheridan (Joe, Mud, The Tree of Life) to Michael Angarano (The Knick, Snow Angels) – are volunteering for the benefits of employment; they want a job for the summer. When asked to choose between playing the role of guard or prisoner in the study, the students uniformly opt for the latter – it just seems easier that way.
Those with burgundy ribbons were allowed to do just about anything; play on the computer, read, or play chess (this being a pre-smartphone era). Yellow ribbons were designated as patrol – their role was to maintain the separation between black ribbons and burgundy ribbons while insuring black ribbons kept to their designated tasks. Most of this involved custodial work, menial labor that was especially grueling given the context. With my homeroom teacher’s penchant for pets – from cockatoos to ferrets - there were numerous cages to be cleaned and maintained. By midday the room was spotless. But more tasks, more jejune and inconsequential, were assigned. One particular assignment involved digging through a sandbox to locate toothpicks; I completed the task, dumbfounded at what was going on, and accosted my teacher about it. She took my toothpicks, tossed them in the garbage, and advised me to restart the exercise. Upon saying no, she advised the yellow ribbons to immediately take me to the disciplinarian’s office. There I was, a model student, straights A’s and a taste for academia, escorted out and thinking my immaculate record will forever be tarnished – all over some toothpicks.
Everything about the Stanford prison experiment has been documented in most psych 101 courses and textbooks, with the study’s creator, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, often speaking to the test’s results – you’d probably notice him, as he was a staple of day-time talk shows during the Abu Ghraib scandal. In the film he’s realized by Billy Crudup, perfectly capturing the doctor’s ballooning paranoia and tendentious ambitions. As the experiment proceeds, we witness an echo chamber of morale degradation. The guards exploit their position of power, seizing control of inmates by physical force. Prisoners mount a feckless rebellion, thwarted by their own defeated sense of self. Stripped of an identity and “feminized”, it’s this pronounced loss of self, of submitting to a perceived authority that renders the student-cum-prisoners as lost. All the while, graduate students and consultants (most notable is Nelsan Ellis as a former prison inmate brought in to insure of the faux-prison’s authenticity) observe the experiment as it runs amok.
As I was removed from the general populous, I was escorted to the school disciplinarian, a cleft lipped ogre of a man known for his history in law enforcement (this was, after all, a Chicago Public School). This was less a punishment and more a reassignment. If I was not able to function within the parameters of this new martial law, then I was to spend time in a purgatory study hall. This, in itself, wasn’t too bad if it weren’t for the distractingly suffocating atmosphere in which we (more and more students from other 8th grade classes were filtered in by yellow ribbons) were expected to study: in an unfenestrated and oppressively humid room with a pedestal fan providing only mild relief as each slow second of discomfort took its cut.
Alvarez’s stylistic tendencies are simple but mostly effective. Much of the heavy lifting comes from his actors, where Alvarez often highlights their idiosyncrasies in close-up. This enhances the aura of claustrophobia, especially during sequences where inmates are fed – they sit in the hallway of the faux-prison, a tightly confined spot with guards layered one on top the other to display the different plains of action. A notable sequence that bridges the film’s psychological trappings with Alvarez’s formal approach sees inmates lined up and forced to shout their assigned number – an exercise meant to strip them of their former identities. You’ll notice that Alvarez pans during this sequence; one inmate will say his number too slowly or have to look down at his gown to confirm their number, forcing the whole exercise to resume from the beginning of the line with Alvarez panning back. The effort continues, with the camera’s movement accelerating to indicate the collective efficiency of the group. Alvarez then, in a very jarring and exciting moment, gives each inmate their own frame, where they shout their number with eerie confidence. It’s frightening to see this rewiring of identity told through this simple technique.
The day reached its end and the various classes, including those in disciplinarian limbo were moved to the auditorium. Instructors made the experiment’s intentions clear: to explore the nature of control, complacency, and the role of authority in relation to exploitation. That’s primarily what you get out of Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, which to certain viewers might come across as simplistic or venal. There’s a thin line that divides Alvarez’s film and something as exploitative as Craig Zobel’s Compliance; these are both films about people submitting their personal liberties to a figurehead of perceived authority, where compensation is the motivator that keeps the façade intact. But there are underlying currents, whether it be a character’s quest for personal glory (as exemplified by Zimbardo), judicial persecution (a scene toward the latter half of the film involving a parole board is particularly fascinating), and brief but resonate condemnations of white male privilege (all volunteers/students/prisoners/guards are white males attending a renowned, if not Ivy League, institution) that amount to something persuasive. But it’s the film’s ending that provokes such an immediate personal response – a title card notes that no one in the experiment experienced any “long term psychological trauma”. The trauma of my experience, a micro blip on the Richter scale of Zimbardo’s topographically destructive experiment, remains a worldview changer and a memory that I hold onto with vivid detail. As a post-experiment reenactment involving a guard and prisoner reveals how their differences have been resolved, it’s in Alvarez’s close-up on the prisoner’s nervous twitch that reveals something more; something that cannot be mended.