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Koko, a Talking Gorilla: The Criterion Collection

Koko is probably the most famous gorilla in the world. Born in 1971 and trained by Stanford University scientists to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, she was the inspiration for Michael Crichton's talking ape, Amy, in his novel Congo. Books have been written about her — including a children's book about Koko's relationship with her kitten, All Ball — and she can reportedly communicate with over 1,000 "words" in sign language. In 1977, director Barbet Schroeder brought cinematographer Nestor Alemendros along to make a short film as practice for a feature that he had in a mind about a primate expert who teaches a gorilla to sign. However, that project never came to fruition, leaving Schroeder with hours of footage — which he cut it together to make a documentary. Unfortunately, the resulting film suffers a bit from that lack of documentary intent and often feels directionless. But it's still fascinating. Schroeder meets Koko soon after she's transferred from the San Francisco Zoo to Stanford, where she lives in a specially modified trailer and works with Dr. Penny Patterson, learning signs, playing with toys, and interacting with a young gorilla named Michael. In Koko, Schroeder found a compelling and charismatic subject — the great ape is smart and expressive, and watching her "speak" to her trainer makes one wonder how scientists could have ever believed that apes were incapable of abstract communication. For those already familiar with Koko's story, this will be entertaining at best — there's no attempt at anything other that a purely observational document here. But for anyone new to Koko's story, this is a terrific place to start, offering a nice (if lightweight) overview of this intriguing gorilla and the research project that did so much to publicize the intelligence and beauty of these endangered animals. The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Koko, a Talking Gorilla offers a very nice, digitally restored transfer from a rather grainy source print, with clean DD 1.0 audio (English or French with optional English subtitles). Also on board is a new interview with Schroeder (10 min.) and a booklet containing essays by Gary Indiana and Marguerite Dumas. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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