Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pha Loves Pa


This poster is both roughly accurate, and a goddamn lie

“I think we should make a thriller, and Mike Nichols should direct it.”
“What kind of thriller?”
“A dolphin thriller.”
“Well, who should write it?”
“It seems to me that the clear choice here is Buck Henry.”
So, in my dreams, goes the inception of The Day of the Dolphin, the film that brought Nichols, Henry, George C. Scott, Paul Sorvino and talking dolphins into the world of the 1970s paranoid thriller. I’ve come to learn that, unfortunately, things likely played out much differently, not least because there was a novel first, and also because several directors, including Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard, either were up for or actively lobbied to make the film themselves. This is an intriguing variety of filmmakers, I think you’ll agree, but I’m pretty confident not one of them could have done a better job than Mike Nichols ended up doing, which I don’t exactly mean as a compliment, because, again: talking dolphins.
I watched The Day of the Dolphin last night after several months of letting it gather dust on my shelves, because I’d think “Well, George C. Scott, and everything…but it can’t be any good, can it?” To outright steal a phrase from John Self, the film does turn out to be any good; it’s just not many good. Nichols and Henry take an intriguingly straightforward approach to this story, and in the early goings I was more than willing to see where it took me. This low-level enthusiasm was helped along by George C. Scott, who in many ways I think is my ideal actor (this is because I believe that he's very good). Scott plays the hero, a dolphin scientist or whatever, who requires private and government funding to keep his artist/science/dolphin commune running. It is in that commune that he is teaching dolphins to talk. Or a dolphin, named Alpha, or (weary sigh) Pha, for short. I think there’s a logic behind that diminutive, something to do with making it easier for the dolphin to pronounce its name, but in that case maybe they should have gone with “Paul” and avoided all that cutesy “Pha” bullshit. Or if not “Paul”, then “Eeeeeee-eee-EEEEEEEEEE”. Anyway, long story short, some people come to take the dolphins, and The Day of the Dolphin becomes a thriller in its last thirty minutes or so.
I liked George C. Scott a lot, but I can’t shake the feeling that he probably felt like a jackass the whole shoot, and no wonder. He has two scenes with (weary sigh) Pha where he and the dolphin talk for I’d say roughly about 71 minutes, each time. Dragging things down still further is the fact that Scott – the only real actor between him and the dolphin – is made to repeat his questions over and over (“Where’s the boat!” “PHA LOVE PA!” “Where’s the boat, Pha!?” “PHA SAY BOAT GO NOW!” or whatever the fuck the fucking dolphin says) so that any zip the dialogue may have had is quickly lost. Another casualty of scenes like this, it turns out, was my attention, because I’ll be honest: I started to drift after a while. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what the bad guys wanted the dolphins for. I do know that the eventual plan was to kill the dolphins, because one of them could talk, but what they expected that dolphin to say and therefore necessitate its being terminated with extreme prejudice, I don’t know. In fairness, I do not doubt for a second that somebody in the film provided that information, but I didn’t hear it because that “PHA LOVE PA” shit was wearing on my last nerve and I started arguing with people on the internet about what’s to be done with bullies.
So anyway, that’s my review of The Day of the Dolphin.


Ivan said...

Bill, I'm not here to argue (because I haven't seen the flick since it was first released), but to an eight-year-old nerd back in 1973, this movie was great--especially if you were encouraged to watch the Jacque Costeau specials on ABC back then. I think I saw Day of the Dolphin three times back then. Of course, I haven't rushed out to rescreen DotD, probably because I don't want to harsh out any childhood memories.
Keep up the good work,

bill r. said...

Don't worry, Ivan. I mentioned on Facebook that I was watching this last night, and my brother chimed in, clearly because he knew the film from way back. It's clearly one of "those" movies for some people, though I somehow managed to miss it.

Greg said...

I can't disagree with anything you say here, and I don't even remember ever watching this.

bill r. said...

Good, because I'm right. I feel confident that the talking dolphin stuff would drive you batshit, but Scott really is good. Not that he's asked to do much, but I can't take my eyes off that guy.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure I hold a minority opinion, but I never found Geo. C. Scott a very interesting actor...he just seemed like a glorified B-movie character actor, and a very mannered one at that. Day Of The Dolphin may very well have been the absolute highlight of a very mediocre career. The dolphins were clearly underwhelmed by his presence, as was probably everyone else in the cast and crew.

bill r. said...

Yes, I'd say that's a minority opinion. No wonder you wish to remain anonymous!

Robert H. said...

The notes on the La-La-Land CD release of the Georges Delerue score (the best thing in the film) go into some detail on the history of the production.

bill r. said...

So was I misinformed about Polanski and Godard? This has haunted me since I posted it. Yes, I could have looked it up, but the guy who told me seemed to know what he was talking about.

John said...

Indeed, a minority of one, I'd say. And I'm pretty sure minority opinions don't come much more minoritier than that.

Patricia Perry said...

I'm pretty sure that this is the only Mike Nichols-directed film that I've never seen. Your review is funnier than hell, and reading it was probably a way better experience than actually watching the movie.

So thanks for that, Bill!

Robert H. said...


It was intended to be Polanski's follow-up to ROSEMARY'S BABY, and he got as far as pre-production; unfortunately, The Manson Family happened...