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Barbet and Koko: An Equivocal Love Affair

Barbet Schroeder is a director who prefers the appellation “explorer” to that of “auteur,” and again and again his films demonstrate both his intense curiosity about the unexplored and his willingness to allow material he discovers to speak for itself, leaving the viewer to draw whatever inferences this material suggests.

He is not, however, a witness without ideas—if anything, Schroeder’s craft reflects an acute awareness of the implications inherent in his films, both fiction and nonfiction. What makes Schroeder a consummately generative filmmaker is his fastidious neutrality, his conviction that it’s not his job to make things tidy and comforting for his audiences.

Even the neonoir thrillers Schroeder made in Hollywood, such as Desperate Measures (1998), Single White Female (1992), and Kiss of Death (1995), reflect his aversion to pat moralisms. The characters in these films, like his documentary subjects, reveal his idea that every person is an unstable compound of “good” and “evil,” a mixture of negative and positive qualities in varying proportions, which can become catastrophically unbalanced by a blinding sense of being absolutely “right” when we’re convinced that others are absolutely “wrong.” The seemingly or relatively innocent casually expose character flaws that are grossly magnified in their nemeses, contradictions that seem ready-made to activate the wrath and criminal ingenuity of people they’ve less-than-innocently fallen in with (consider the massive carnage that Andy Garcia takes in stride while hell-bent on securing a bone-marrow transplant for his son from protean killer Michael Keaton in Desperate Measures). If the unfolding of these stories turns unimaginably disastrous, their logic emanates precisely from the lack of a rigorous demarcation between “right” and “wrong.”

Schroeder’s documentary films nimbly avoid pedantry or parti pris, though the viewer can infer his sympathies in Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978), just as one can imagine his amused horror while recording the hair-raising self-portrait he gave Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada free rein to perform on celluloid. Schroeder is well aware that life is not a narrative; that we impose form on the movements of change, contingency, and impulse; that documen­taries are notoriously slippery, since what the camera catches never coincides with even the most flexible script, but ultimately determines its own form. In his unpredictable daily encounters with Koko and her teacher, Dr. Penny Patterson, Schroeder foregrounds the quiddity of Koko’s situation, in episodic fashion. Scenes of teaching sessions in language recognition, displays of abstract thought, and demonstrations of Koko’s ability to recognize human speech as well as sign language carry voice-over commentary elucidating the scientific issues the Gorilla Foundation’s experiments address and hope to settle—the most important, in many ways, being a revised definition of “personhood.”

This film poses questions about our relationship to other species, discomforting questions most readily addressed to higher primates, whose genetic resemblance to human beings is so close that our descent from them seems indisputable. These questions are raised in the intermittent narration threaded through documentary scenes of Koko’s daily activities, and in interviews with other primate researchers. In this respect, Schroeder’s technique is not especially unconventional (though the cinematography of longtime collaborator Nestor Almendros gives Koko an atmosphere of intimate immediacy unusual in this kind of film). Schroeder’s subject, however, is full of idiosyncratic freshness and appeal. Koko, in its undidactic way, can be related to contemporaneous investigations of language acquisition, both in academia and popular culture, inspired by the widespread influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s radical interrogation of “language games” and Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories about innate syntactical structures. Many of these explorations sought further proofs of Darwinian evolution by discovering “intermediate forms of language” among higher primates, while others investigated the alleged development of “private languages” between culturally isolated children, a phenomenon documented by Jean-Pierre Gorin, two years after Koko, in his brilliant film Poto and Cabengo, about twins raised in Linda Vista, California, in a household where all the adults spoke a mélange of German and English in extremely defective ways.

In Darwin’s least-known important book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he demonstrates that all animals “talk”; that the higher species all use the same morphologies of facial expressions, the same muscles, to convey emotional and mental states; that the physical motions of dogs and cats, as well as primates, have distinct meanings that can be “read” by one another, by other animals, and, if we study them, by humans as well. Can the mountain gorilla, and other higher primates, communicate needs, wishes, thoughts, in a manner that both they and humans can understand? Can a gorilla trained in sign language and able to comprehend thousands of human utterances transmit this language to other gorillas? Since the outset of Patterson’s experiments with Koko, thirty-four years ago, some of these questions seem to have been answered affirmatively (though the Gorilla Foundation’s claims about the transmission of human language from one gorilla to another seem at best exaggerated). Yet the quality of this communication, and the highly specialized circumstances in which it has been inculcated, raise troubling questions of their own.

Despite ambitious projects that the Gorilla Foundation has launched in Cameroon and other parts of Africa, the ongoing destruction of habitat and the decimation of gorillas, along with most other endangered species (for food, by their capture for zoos, by deforestation of their enclaves), anticipates an imminent future in which the only remaining refuge for these magnificent creatures will be nonindigenous conservancies, such as the seventy-acre Maui Preserve currently under construction. Seventy acres sounds like a lot; however, quite a few of the world’s wealthy entertainers, corporate elite, and scions of vast fortunes own twenty times as much pristine, unused property. Without sufficient habitat, any species “preserved” in circumscribed space, in inadequately variegated clans, will eventually exhaust its genetic diversity.

I don’t mean to suggest that Patterson and the Gorilla Foundation aren’t engaged in a noble endeavor. I fear it may, in time, prove a quixotic one, a worthy bulwark against inevitable extinction.

Schroeder made his film in the early days of Koko’s education, when Patterson and her colleagues had already made surprising discoveries about interspecies communication. Koko had, for example, already learned to manipulate a ViewMaster, to indicate her desire for objects that were not visible to her, to use sign language to invent names for actions and things. Unfortunately, female gorillas will only mate when females outnumber males, a situation Patterson hopes to effect at the Maui Preserve. While Koko developed affectionate bonds with Michael and Ndume, males introduced to the limited habitat in Woodside, California, she was unwilling to mate with either.

In an essay I commissioned from Schroeder in 1993, for a Faber and Faber anthology, Living with the Animals, the director provided some astonishing observations about his own interactions with Koko: that she quickly understood she was being filmed, and even learned to start the camera, and behaved differently when it was running; she “performed more.” Schroeder attributes “real star quality” to Koko, and there’s no question that Koko, like Idi Amin Dada—a very different kind of iconic anomaly—is continually fascinating to watch, extravagantly expressive, and even a bit of a ham. Schroeder’s first concern as a director is to find a compelling subject, but it’s just as important to incarnate the subject with the right “star”; the finished script of Maîtresse (1973) languished for almost a decade, until Schroeder found Gérard Depardieu—for him, the only possible actor to play the male lead. With Koko, fortuitously, subject and star were the same thing, which was also true of General Idi Amin Dada (1974).

Koko can, contrary to popular lore, recognize her own image in a mirror. In 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editors selected Koko’s self-portrait, shot in a mirror with an Olympus camera, for National Geographic, as one of the top forty magazine covers of the last forty years. She has taken loving care of several pets, including kittens and dogs. Though her first kitten, All-Ball, died in 1984, Koko continues to miss her: “Even thumbing through picture books of cats that look like her kitty, she does react with emotional words like frown and sad,” Patterson said.

Schroeder’s film is not so much skeptical as grounded in realism. We would need to ignore the evidence of our senses, the evidence of the camera, to believe that no degree of wishful thinking enters into Patterson’s interpretation of some of Koko’s behavior. It’s doubtful, to say the least, that Koko would be “happier” in the San Francisco Zoo, from which she was purchased after extensive litigation. At the same time, Koko’s intimate dependence on Patterson over several decades unavoidably raises the question: what would Koko do if her teacher became, for one reason or another, incapacitated or unavailable? Is the highly unnatural situation Koko has spent most of her life in the only one in which she could survive?

For the truth is that Koko has become unique among her species—as the Gorilla Foundation website has it, “Ambassador for an Endangered Species”—and, despite numerous other, similar primate study projects elsewhere, and the presence of some other mountain gorillas at Woodside, somewhat plangently isolated from her own kind. She is a “celebrity,” obliged to appear on children’s shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and to give somewhat dyslexic interviews, with Patterson’s help, to Internet audiences on AOL.

Of course, the gaudily decorated, shopping-mall aspect of the foundation’s website is the necessary, quotidian means for raising money for a desperately needed sanctuary in Hawaii. But the coarse marketing of an extraordinary gorilla to rescue the vanishing wildlife of our planet depressingly heightens the feeling that nature itself is fated for extinction, since only an improbable volte-face, a reversal of the indifferent depredations of the human race, could possibly produce a less than entropic result.

In Koko: A Talking Gorilla, Barbet Schroeder takes no pleasure in such meditations, nor does he give explicit voice to the direst of dire scenarios the film, thirty years on, suggests to its viewers. His film is a work of stoic empathy.

At the time Schroeder made Koko, he “became a fanatic for gorillas.” He went to Africa and saw “the horrible things that were happening,” which have become infinitely more horrible still. He wrote to Dian Fossey, hoping to visit her camp, and she answered, “Don’t even try to come near my camp; I’ll shoot you.” “And she was right,” Schroeder says. “When I understood what was happening, I agreed that it was the only way to do it. But, of course, that was the last stand. Now things are getting much worse than anything she had dreamt in her worst nightmares.”

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