Koko a Talking Gorilla
Criterion // Unrated // $29.95 // July 11, 2006
Review by DVD Savant | posted July 23, 2006
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Graphical Version
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Koko, a Talking Gorilla is a curious small scale documentary from 1978 that observes a zoo-born female gorilla in the fifth year of an experiment in human-simian communications. Dr. Penny Patterson lives with the mostly calm and agreeable Koko and has taught her hundreds of sign-language words in American Sign Language, the common manual code used by deaf people. We see Koko in her daily routine, calmly signing on her own as well as responding to Penny's teaching method. Koko is compared to a developmentally deficient child. Because she's being trained, many of Koko's responses appear to be coached by her human handler / companion / friend; but there are plenty of on-camera moments when Koko initiates new subject matter. We're impressed when Koko rejects a new yellow sweater, preferring her worn older red one. Red appears to be her favorite color and we see her pick it out several times.

Koko has been criticized in some quarters for not backing up Dr. Patterson's claims with on-camera examples. We're told that Koko puts together signs to create compound words, like "finger bracelet" to represent a "ring." Examples of these aren't seen, although they aren't that hard to believe. Dr. Patterson also talks about Koko's feelings and how well she expresses them, although these responses are often coaxed by Penny. Koko indeed looks a little dejected, but it is Dr. Patterson who suggests that Koko is sad, by asking her. Then Koko signs her sad words, drawing tears down her face, etc.

Some of those critics claim that everything Koko does is really coached, or cleverly taught as a response, especially because Penny is constantly rewarding the gorilla with sweets. Koko's signs aren't always as clear as they might be; Penny is also reminds the ape to sign more clearly. We sometimes wonder if Koko is simply responding with sophisticated learned behavior. But other times it is very obvious that Koko has a personality of her own and is capable of expressing herself in signed words. She puts on makeup and has a definite opinion about herself. When she gets into arguments or misbehaves, she mimes the word "sorry" and then tries to defuse Dr. Patterson's chastising with gestures of affection. Koko is gentle with a baby doll, insistent about things she wants and petulant about her little crimes.

Interrupting the observations are interviews with Dr. Patterson and other scientists and psychologists. We find out that the training of Koko was inspired by earlier language experiments with chimpanzees. We also find out that Koko's participation in the experiment has a shady back story; Patterson arranged to borrow the ape and take it to Stanford, and eventually refused to return her when the zoo wanted her back.

The contention is simple enough to explain. Saul Kitchener, the new zoo director, claims that Patterson's experiment is not in Koko's best interest because Koko is being trained to live as a human being, not an ape. Although Koko had been rejected by her mother and was not happy at the zoo (Patterson's assertion), Kitchener feels that Koko is being raised as a freak and taught to imitate human behaviors. Patterson responds that the near-extinction of mountain gorillas in the wild of Africa doesn't leave Koko with a viable ape-life alernative, unless captivity in the artificial environment of a zoo is to be considered a natural setting. Publicity was heavily in favor of Patterson's experiment. She appears to have presented Koko for many press opportunities and of course made her available for Schroeder's film.

The second issue raised by Koko is less controversial. The scientists and psychologists ask us to consider the species line that Koko is crossing, and how that relates to our idea of human-ness. Koko recognizes her image in a mirror, conceptualizes herself and relates to objects not in her immediate presence. The scientists stress how little actual difference there is between men and apes, in scientific terms at least. Nobody brings up the dreaded Darwin and evolution connections, but when we see Koko being taken for car rides and picnics in the country, it's easy to imagine creationists' hair standing on edge.

Criterion's disc of Koko, a Talking Gorilla has a good flat transfer of Néstor Almendros' 16mm cinematography, which looks good but tends to be grainy. Audio is very clear. The only disc extra is an interview with director Schroeder, who tells us that since he couldn't operate a boom mike around the curious Koko, he dubbed in many extra small sound effects to augment the track. Oddly, the feature film clips on the 16:9 enhanced interview extra often appear sharper and clearer than the transfer of the feature presentation. An alternate audio track presents the official original version of the movie, with its narration track spoken in French.

Koko is not one of Criterion's more elaborate presentations, and it leaves us wanting more of the story. Text essays by Gary Indiana and Marguerite Duras allude to a controversy over Koko in the interval between 1978 and now; Dr. Patterson is still using Koko to raise money for a big gorilla habitat in Hawaii. We're curious about those plans, and also about what became of Patterson's stated 1978 intention to expand Koko's vocabulary and to get her to talk to a second ape, Mike. When we see them together in the docu, they just want to play. All of these big dreams and the Koko experiment itself may have floundered; the disc extras don't elaborate further. I suppose that's what the Internet is for.

Indiana and Duras remark on the ultimate extinction of the mountain gorillas and speculate that even if Patterson does launch her Hawaiian preserve, she can't expect the gene pool of a couple of dozen apes to stay fresh forever. Koko, a Talking Gorilla remains a compelling document of a fascinating experiment.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, KOKO a talking gorilla rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview with Barbet Schroeder, essays by Gary Indiana and Marguerite Duras
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson

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