Sunday, September 23, 2012

Koko, a Talking Gorilla (1978)

Penny Patterson and Koko in 1978

Over at her movie review blog, Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense, my dear friend Emily Intavia is devoting the month of September to the theme of Animals Doing Human Stuff. She asked me if I might want to write something about this topic, and I decided it would finally give me the excuse to write about a 1970s documentary I might not otherwise cover on this blog. Enjoy.
We really want animals to be human, don't we? We talk to them and sometimes pretend that they are talking back to us. We give them names. We dress them up in "people clothes." We ascribe all kinds of emotions to them. In fables, comics, and cartoons, we routinely use animals as full-fledged stand-ins for people, generally rendering them in humanoid form in the process. (Does Mickey Mouse look or behave like any actual mouse you've ever seen?) Comics historian Don Markstein once traced this literary tradition of "funny animals" back to the fables of Aesop. But how much are animals like us really? How "human" can we make them? And should we be doing this at all?

Poster for Koko, a Talking Gorilla
These are among the questions considered in Barbet Schroeder's involving yet not entirely satisfying 1978 documentary entitled Koko, a Talking Gorilla, which focuses on the controversial and possibly groundbreaking work of Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson, who supposedly taught American Sign Language (ASL) to Koko, a female gorilla born in captivity. More has been written about Penny and Koko over the last 40 years than I could ever hope to relate to you. If you're interested in the saga of this remarkable gorilla and her adoptive "mother," this essay provides a good overview.

The gist of it is this: Koko was born in the San Francisco Zoo in 1971 but was sickly as an infant. She was placed in the care of Penny Patterson, a grad student then in her mid-20s. Instead of returning Koko to the zoo, Patterson decided to use Koko as the center of an unprecedented, decades-long language experiment which continues to this day under the auspices of an organization called the Gorilla Foundation. Patterson now alleges that Koko has a vocabulary of roughly 2,000 words and can respond to spoken English as well, but these claims are not universally accepted in the scientific community. Oh, and in 2005, there was a very strange sexual harassment suit filed against Patterson by disgruntled ex-employees of the Gorilla Foundation who claim they were pressured to expose their breasts to Koko in order to satisfy the gorilla's "nipple fetish." I'm not making this stuff up.

I'm not sure how valid this experiment has been, but I can tell you that I found Penny Patterson to be an absolutely mesmerizing character, much more fascinating in her own way than Koko. Flawlessly pretty with long, blonde, wavy hair and smooth, doll-like features, Patterson absolutely does not look like the kind of woman you'd imagine catching a gorilla's urine in a cup (straight from the source, no less). But there she is, on camera, cheerfully doing just that. Director Schroeder also narrates the documentary and makes a point of the fact that Patterson has no children of her own, never takes vacations, and must be with Koko every morning and evening. He never explains why the doctor has to be there every time the gorilla wakes up or goes to bed, but he seems impressed by her dedication to the project. By the end of the film, Schroeder has given up all illusions of neutrality and is openly endorsing Patterson's work.

One wonders how Werner Herzog might have handled this same assignment. If nothing else, Koko, a Talking Gorilla might make an interesting companion piece to Herzog's much-less-sentimental Grizzly Man. The other film I was thinking about while watching this documentary, of course, was King Kong. In every cinematic iteration of that story, Kong has become enamored of a human woman. And all of these women (Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, Naomi Watts) have been blondes, just like Patterson.

Penny and Koko in the early days
In fairness to Schroeder, it's easy to fall under Patterson's spell. She's sweet-natured and enthusiastic, and how can you not love a woman who blithely cruises past used car lots and fast food restaurants with a giant gorilla in the passenger seat of her car? A great deal of the film is devoted simply to showing Patterson and Koko spending quality time together, and they do seem to have a genuine mother-daughter bond.

This is a 1970s PBS-style documentary, so there are also occasional minutes of screen time devoted to earnest scientists talking in a rather dry fashion directly to the camera about the language capabilities of various primates. These are "groovy," Jimmy Carter-era scientists, though, and they have beards, turtlenecks, and Prince Valiant haircuts, so you know that they're not some uptight squares, man. The only real opposition to Patterson the film presents is a brief interview with a zoo owner who believes Koko should be back in a zoo environment and not raised as a pseudo-human child by a (possibly) crazy lady. Even this gregarious man, though, knows his opinions will not be popular with viewers and sadly acknowledges he will likely come off as a villain in Schroeder's film. And besides, we don't want to see some boring dudes yakking away at the camera. We want to see Penny teaching Koko to wear makeup! Or Penny dressing Koko in a red sweater! Or Penny and Koko just wrestling around on the floor!

Can Koko really use sign language and understand spoken English? Eh, it's debatable. She does seem to be able to make a few unmistakable signs (she's got "toothpaste" down pat), and she seems to be able to identify pictures of various animals in a book after Penny reads their names aloud. But through all of this, it takes a lot of coaching from the pretty young doctor. A lot of times throughout the film -- and in the other, later documentaries about Koko -- we only really know what the gorilla is thinking because Penny tells us. Certainly, some of the project's success exists only in Patterson's mind. How much, I don't exactly know. There's an interesting scene in this film when Koko starts to misbehave and Penny has to chase after her. The doctor seems a little rattled and says the word "cut." Is that some kind of command to the gorilla, or is she telling Schroeder to turn off his camera?

All in all, Koko, a Talking Gorilla (which was actually given a Criterion DVD release a few years back) is definitely worth 85 minutes of your time. It's not as emotionally satisfying as a Herzog documentary might be under the same circumstances, but it nevertheless provides valuable insight... not so much into gorillas but into human beings and our desire to see ourselves reflected in the animal kingdom.