What separates man from animal? The ability to construct a society? The ability to understand complex thought? Or is it the ability to speak?
According to the lessons of KOKO, a Talking Gorilla, it's the lattermost of these. Barbet Schroeder got amazing access to several days of training sessions with the now-famous Koko, the gorilla who was taught American sign language by the time she was six and eventually learned several hundred words, plus the ability to use a rudamentary computer to "speak" aloud.
For the bulk of the film, we're locked into Koko's, well, it's part classroom, part holding cell, with her and her trainer Penny Patterson, a Portia di Rossi lookalike who is with Koko every for just about waking hour.
Now I was ready to dismiss this film as 80 minutes that would have been better off on PBS, and for a while it seems that Koko will wind up that way. But spend a little time with Koko and you'll start to fall under her spell. Is this for real? Can Koko really express preference for a red sweater over a yellow one? Can she really be saying these things?
But as fascinating as Koko is, the real star of the show turns out to be Patterson. Her patience and personal sacrifice is unfathomable. She has to be teacher to a very stubborn student and her mother, and in the gorilla world that means the occasional slap to Koko's face. Eventually we learn that if she doesn't assert herself enough, the 110-pound woman could find herself on the wrong end of a Koko attack.
And all for what? To prove that a monkey can talk? This is dedication, people.
Koko really grabs you when director Barbet Schroeder reveals that the film is completely an underground affair. Koko was on loan from the San Francisco Zoo, and the zoo wanted their property back. The cops could show up at any moment, and Patterson says she is prepared to take Koko and run. Can you imagine?
Well, Schroeder could, and in fact, in the 10-minute 2006 interview with Schroeder that's included on the film's Criterion disc, he reveals that the project had a much different beginning. His idea was to make a fiction movie about a woman who does indeed abscond with a gorilla and flees to Africa, where the film would mostly be shot. Sam Shepard was going to write the screenplay. Now can you imagine that?
Disappointingly, that's the only extra on this disc, aside from a couple of printed essays from Gary Indiana and an embarassing mess written by the late Marguerite Duras that should never have been published. Koko deserves better. Along with an apple.
Aka Koko, le gorille qui parle.