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The Criterion Collection presents
"Even though Koko was born in the San Francisco Zoo, she is still an animal of the primeval forest, an exile. Koko lives in a suburb just south of San Francisco. This is what's called her cultural environment."
DVD ReviewThere have been a number of controversial experiments designed to probe the relationship between man and primate, in particular on the subject of speech and communication. One of the more celebrated studies dealt with a female lowland gorilla named Koko, born in the San Francisco Zoo in 1971. Through the remarkable work of Stanford University researcher Dr. Penny Patterson, Koko eventually learned over 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language. Koko's ability to use ASL as a communication tool, often forming new compound words when needed, is subject of this 1978 documentary from director Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, Reversal of Fortune) and cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Places In The Heart, Sophie's Choice).
Schroeder's doc runs just 80 minutes, but in that short time he manages to quietly create a compelling argument many would probably rather ignore. It is the cognitive language link between human and animal—and the possibility that a gorilla could learn and use a human language—that would seem to give Koko: A Talking Gorilla a flag-waving pro-Darwin/evolution bend. Yet Schroeder pulls back enough to allow Patterson's experiment to be shown for the amazing work that it is, no matter where your personal beliefs lie. We watch countless scenes of Koko clearly using ASL to communicate, in some cases using it to reflect emotion or other times to demand a certain color sweater, and the question of whether or not language is being used seems almost a moot point.
Even the most diehard cynic would have to admit that at a bare minimum Koko's "mimicry" (if that's what you would be more comfortable calling it) represents a real twist on the preconceived animal learning curve. But it would appear that this isn't simple mimicry, and this particular gorilla is not a random fluke of nature, because Schroeder shows us other apes and chimpanzees have been taught ASL, though none to the same level of celebrity as Koko. Patterson's work, done is small doses over a long period of time, has implications that transcend the boundaries that once separated man and animal.
The presentation here is slightly uneven in spots, and background information sometimes is a bit lacking. Schroeder often offers just a thumbnail look at the participants, with the extent of Patterson's life quickly summed up by an oddly inflected narrator who sounds like he's imitating Kevin Spacey. But the thin detail on the humans is more than made up for with the footage of Koko communicating and learning with the brazen stubbornness of an oversized child. It is one thing to see Koko find a certain picture when asked (and that alone seems fantastic), but when Patterson can draw out what she refers to as "feeling states" in the gorilla, where Koko expresses her emotions, the line between the species becomes very, very blurry.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: According to the included booklet, director Barbet Schroeder supervised 1.33:1 fullframe transfer used here, struck from an original 35mm internegative, and "thousands of instances" dirt, debris and scratches have been removed. Even with this pedigree, the resulting transfer still carries a generally soft-edged veneer, a fluctuating color palette and a steady veil of fine grain. Obviously the source material was in fairly poor condition, and based on Criterion's reputation alone, I'm certain this represents a substantial improvement.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The remastered English language 1.0 mono track is free of any dominant hiss or crackle, and though it lacks any real spatial depth, it provides clear voice quality for the duration.
A French language track, read by author Marguerite Duras, is also included.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Extras Review: Not an exceptional amount of extras by any means—a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen 2006 Barbet Schroeder interview (11m:05s) is the only supplement on the disc itself. Schroeder's recollections of the film and his fond remembrances of Koko are the highlights of his talk; while it is an interesting piece, it just seems far too short.
A 14-page booklet is also included, featuring the essays Barbet and Koko: An Equivocal Love Affair by Gary Indiana and This Large Black Animal by Marguerite Duras, as well as a few photos of Koko.
The film is cut into 18 chapters, with optional English subtitles.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsI think an extra or two filling in Koko's post-1978 history could have really rounded this release out nicely, simply from an historical perspective. Even without that wished for follow up, Schroeder's film, saddled as it is with a somewhat abrupt wrap up, is still a fascinating look at an animal that may be more intelligent than many would like to think. Darwin would be proud.
From an extras standpoint, this isn't Criterion's most in-depth release, but the thought-provoking film is still highly recommended.
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