Koko, A Talking Gorilla (1978) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
14May/100

Koko, A Talking Gorilla (1978)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny INDIFFERENTForty years ago there was a gorilla born in the San Diego Zoo named Koko. She experienced some health issues and was shipped out to Stanford University for study. This took an unexpected turn when several scientists joined together to expand upon an earlier experiment where they'd tried to teach an orangutan how to talk. Since the apes seemed to lack the vocal chords for speech, Koko was instead taught sign language.

She learned slowly at first, learning about one new sign a month. After eighteen months of training, though, Koko began to become more prolific. By the time this movie was filmed, she knew over two hundred different signs.

This film, a documentary by French director Barbet Schroeder, inserts a few talking heads, but spends most of its time in the company of Koko and her handler, Dr. Francine 'Penny' Patterson. We see Koko identify pictures, get angry, and interact with other gorillas, and listen to Patterson talk about the training she's given.

The footage of Koko and Patterson interacting is fascinating. I found myself often questioning what I was seeing trying to discern the gestures and the honesty of how they were reached. Does she just frantically search for a meaning? Does Patterson give her too much flexability? Does Koko merely repeat what's been taught to her? Sometimes it seems that way.

But even then there a moments that seem to go against that. When Koko misbehaves, Patterson asks why she is acting that way. "I'm bad," says Koko. Does she know that's how she is supposed to react? Is she bad as in she's misbehaving or bad in that she's internally rotten?

If it seems like I'm asking a lot of questions, the movie does its best to raise as many as it can, though they are still as rhetorical now as they were in 1978. The film isn't asking you to turn your critical thoughts towards Koko's abilities, though, but rather at the question of animal rights and how Koko's abilities figures into the general attitudes of man.

The talking heads that take up the smaller portion of the picture spend most of their time debating this point. We have a few animal handlers and scientists, but the man I found the most interesting was a brief segment with the director of the San Francisco Zoo, Saul Kitchener. The movie occurs shortly after he and the zoo had tried to get Koko back since, ostensibly, she belonged to them, only to be met with a media backlash. He's humble as he insists his beliefs that wanted it to be able to interact with other gorillas again. He also says that a gorilla can be taught what good and bad is, but they can't instinctively feel it, another interesting quandary.

The documentary is obviously not in his favor, as it shows the desolate gorilla cages, and cuts to an interview with Patterson where she writes his opinion off. "They're using the word 'humanize' when I'd use the word, uh, 'people-ize'!" she insists. Yeah, she seems about this loopy during the rest of the film.

While the film isn't completely 'rah rah' through and through, it still feels too close to shilling for animal preservation. And without any serious contention present towards Koko's abilities, it feels one sided as well.

Near the end of the film, we're treated to a long elegiac shot of Patterson and Koko together on a grassy hill. We only see their backs, but they both are staring into the distance at the cows, the trees, and the hills. Is there another level here? If a gorilla can appreciate beauty, what separates it from man?

It's a question that might be better asked in a more focused and less infatuated movie, but it's still a good question.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978)

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Starring Koko and Dr. Francine Patterson

Posted by Danny

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