Judge Jonathan Weiss knows only a few words in sign language, and most of them will earn him a good punch in the face if he uses them in public.
Monkey see. Monkey do.
Here's a fact: Criterion is the holy grail of DVDs. Titles are chosen with care, restored to perfection, and are usually supplemented with an impressive array of extra material. Many of them are also over thirty-five dollars US (and over forty Canadian) and can climb well over the fifty-dollar threshold. Most, but not all. Recently Criterion has been releasing titles at a price point that is more in line with what most people will spend on a DVD—namely within the twenty-something mark. Koko: A Talking Gorilla is one such title. But even priced to sell, is a dated documentary about a gorilla with the ability to communicate through American Sign Language a title that the average viewer is willing to buy and put on their DVD shelf next to, let's say, the Blade trilogy? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a look.
Facts of the Case
Before entering the Hollywood mainstream as a director of such films as Single White Female, Kiss of Death, and Desperate Measures, Barbet Schroeder was mainly a producer of foreign art films. When looking for his next project he happened to hear about a student in California teaching a gorilla American Sign Language. The idea was intriguing enough to get Barbet on a plane to America. Upon arriving in Berkley he met one Penny Patterson, an attractive and idealistic young student working on her degree and Koko, one incredibly charismatic and intelligent young gorilla. As he spent time with the two of them he knew deep in his bones that this would be his next project—only not as a documentary (that was never his intent), but as a full-blown movie. He used money out of his own pocket to film Penny and Koko together—to be used as a means to enchant potential parties to help finance the project. He even scouted locations in Africa, again using his own funds. But alas, even with all of his passion and enthusiasm, it looked like Koko: The Movie was never going to happen. Koko the gorilla, however, was far too mesmerizing to forget. So Barbet took all the footage he and acclaimed cinematographer Nestor Almendros shot and edited together 80 minutes in the lives of Penny and Koko—and in the process created a documentary that not only captured the relationship between two strong-minded individuals breaking new ground, but also managed to question the very foundation of what it means to be human—not just biologically, but intellectually and spiritually as well.
Imagine you're clicking ye old TV converter late at night. You know the drill. Click, Ultimate Fighting Challenge, click, Beverly Hillbillies rerun, click, infomercial about tightening your abs, click, infomercial on the only food processor you'll ever need, and then once you get up there past the regular networks, click, Koko: A Talking Gorilla. Pause. That's right, if you're a National Geographic or PBS kind of person, your finger will ease off the channel changer and the converter will rest easily into the palm of your hand all by itself as you wait to give Koko the benefit of the doubt; and if you do, you'll probably wind up watching the whole thing. That's the power of this wondrous simian.
Of course talking is overstating it a little bit. Koko is no Disney reject who talks like Sebastian Cabot or sings like Louis Prima. What Koko does is sign, using her hands to represent the words she wishes to share. Her vocabulary is good but not extensive, and there are times when you might wonder if Penny Patterson's enthusiasm helps comprise much of Koko's dialogue, but there are definite moments where there is no doubt that Koko does indeed "talk." And that's what this story is about.
History is full of animals that have been trained to do all sorts of incredible things. One needs only to visit a circus to find elephants that can balance on balls or bears that can ride a unicycle. If you look at it this way, then how hard could it be to train a gorilla to sign? But then it's not the act of signing that is under exploration here; it is the comprehension of said signs. In other words, it's one thing to train a gorilla to sign the word "banana" on command and another thing entirely to sign the word because she actually has a hankering for a banana.
There's an old saying, one with many variations, that sums up the thesis behind Koko: A Talking Gorilla quite nicely. Here it is in the context of this movie: You can take the gorilla out of the jungle but can't take the jungle out of the gorilla. In other words, at what point does a gorilla stop being a gorilla, if at all?
Koko was initially a part of a zoo's gorilla pavilion. Needless to say she was treated well, but she was treated like a gorilla. When Penny Patterson wished to begin her experiment, the zoo let her take Koko out from behind the cage and in so doing, gave her a whole new future. But when Penny wanted to take Koko with her back to Berkley, under her care, the zoo wanted Koko back. Only now, Koko was not the same gorilla. She was now able to communicate with humans. To the zoo Koko was property; to Penny, she was an individual. But whatever she had become, Koko was and will always be a gorilla.
Does Koko: A Talking Gorilla answer any of these questions? No, not really. But it does appear to be one of the first documentaries to ask—not overtly, but through exposure. The more time spent with Penny and Koko, the more heartless the zoo spokesperson sounds. And yet you also can't help but feel that Koko has merely traded in her life being paraded around in front of zoo visitors for being paraded around in front of the media. Which life is better? Well, you'd probably have to ask Koko.
Koko: A Talking Gorilla looks incredible for its age. The image is crisp and basically speck-free, and the colours, though muted, make it hard to believe that this film is almost thirty years old. The sound is mono (as it should be, having been shot in 1977), but very audible. As far as extras go, there is a new interview with Barbet Schroeder where he talks about the experience he had making the film as well as his obvious affection for its star, Koko. However, if you're looking for anything other than a pleasant walk down memory line, you're probably going to be disappointed. There are two essays included in the DVD slip case and they're really just so-so additions. The one by Marguerite Duras is actually a little bizarre in that upon reading it you get the distinct impression that she's appalled by Koko's current condition—and if that is truly the case then good for Criterion for being gutsy enough to show an opposing view.
Koko: A Talking Gorilla is a good documentary. And being a Criterion it's been given the treatment it undoubtedly deserves. Though one can't help but wonder how much, if not better, then fuller an experience it would have been to catch up with Koko today—after all she is still alive and is the very public spokes-simian for the Gorilla Foundation. Maybe that would have pushed the price tag of this disc up somewhere into the mid-thirties, but for those who will buy this disc, it would most probably have been worth it. There could be many reasons that they decide not to go that route, but for some reason it feels as if Criterion just didn't want to show how Koko traded in one cage for another.
Koko is free to go—but this time really free. After all, even invisible chains are still chains.
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