There is a link between cult favourite – well, for a few – The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and the film Altered States (1980). That link is American scientist John C. Lilly (1915-2001 heart failure).
Lilly studied the communication between humans and dolphins for many years in the 1950s and 60s which led to the novel The Day of the Dolphin by French writer Robert Merle (1908-2004 heart attack).
Written in 1967, it was turned into a movie in 1973, starring the great George C. Scott (1927-99 abdominal aortic aneurysm). The book and the film differ a great deal, including the names of the dolphins which in the film are Alpha (Fa) and Beta (Bea).
Scientist Lilly worked in the Virgin Islands for a spell with bottle nosed dolphins along with researcher Margaret Howe Lovatt (1942-). The movie is set on an island of a similar nature off the coast of Florida. It is a follow-up movie for stars Scott and Trish Van Devere (1941-) who had fallen in love during the filming of The Last Run (1971), effectively ending Scott’s marriage to actress Colleen Dewhurst (1924-91 cervical cancer). Scott and Van Devere play the principal scientists.
As for Lilly and the link with Altered States: Lilly was the first scientist to trial the use of isolation tanks… together with the use of mind-altering drugs. Isolation tanks are full of saline solution and are dark and closed off as the person inside can’t see or hear anything and suffers sensory deprivation which can lead to profound thought and even hallucination. Add drugs and… you have Altered States!
But back to Day of the Dolphin and how it tells of a bunch of scientists trying to teach dolphins to speak English. They succeed up to a point. The original title of the novel in French translated to A Sentient Animal, or one that seems to have conscious thought, which is hammered home in the opening of the movie at a forum where Scott takes questions from humans who seem less intelligent than the dolphins.
Scott and Van Devere are called Pa and Ma by the dolphin Fa, apparently voiced by actor Robert Lydiard (1945-), who did voice work on cartoons. The screenplay was written by Buck Henry (1930-2020). The film was derided by critics as rather boring, with Scott and Van Devere described as little more than glorified hand feeders of fish heads to the dolphins when they behave.
However, The Day of the Dolphin can be an intensely moving film if it gets you in the right mood. Together with composer Georges Delerue’s (1925-92 heart attack) score and the beauty of the dolphins and their simple language, with sentences such as “Fa loves Pa”… anyway as a kid I was really affected by this film and, occasionally, if I watch it again and the mood strikes me, I will be moved to tears. Big, sentimental slob that I am.
“You’re really a pain in the ass,” says Scott to Fa, because he won’t say the word hand. “Ass,” says Fa in return and Scott says he’s thinking of selling him and getting himself a parrot.
After the setting of the island paradise laboratory is established, its idealism and idyllic beauty is soon interfered with the introduction of a conspiracy which has nefarious characters who plan to use the dolphins to kill the President of the United States. Yes, in a country of conspiracy prone presidents, it’s only natural!
Anyway the dolphins are corrupted, well not really, they are trained to place a bomb attached to a brace on their back, to the hull of the presidential yacht.
Meanwhile as they converse with Scott with their vocabulary of about 100 words or less… we grow to love these creatures… Who can’t love a dolphin?!
In the real life case of Lilly and Lovatt, when they decided to live with the dolphins full time for a few months in a makeshift indoor/outdoor pool home, it became untenable for the scientists as the dolphins kept nudging Lovatt non-stop constantly to the point where the experiment was terminated.
Obviously dolphins are intelligent. As a kid in Adelaide, we used to watch as they performed in an indoor pool. That place was called Marineland and it eventually closed and the dolphins were shipped to northern Australia in Queensland to a place called Seaworld. I remember I visited Seaworld several years after the closing of Marineland and there were these dolphins who would just stare at me, and my then lover, from the confines of their outdoor pool. I asked about the dolphins and the keeper said they were the Marineland dolphins from Adelaide and that they loved to stare at the sky, having been kept in captivity in an indoor pool for so long previously… I loved the thought that these poor creatures I had watched perform tricks as a child had found some sort of liberation in retirement even though it was in the confines of another zoo.
Before Fa is trained to kill presidents, he is introduced to Bea, a female dolphin and for a couple of weeks wouldn’t speak English, reverting to his own language, which Scott says: “Must be a great relief.”
“It’s love all right,” says Van Devere.
Lovatt’s close experiments ended after three months, as I mentioned, from exhaustion. But sounds, or words, spoken by humans, were imitated by the dolphins during the experiments and Lilly wrote a couple of books on the entire experience of his years of study.
But it is obvious from watching the animals perform at ocean parks that they can learn limited commands, especially with whistles. Lilly’s interest in dolphins waned as he then moved on to whales and their song and their possible high intelligence.
The Day of the Dolphin was directed by Mike Nichols (1931-2014 heart attack), who was more at home with drama and comedy with films such as The Graduate (1967) and Carnal Knowledge (1971) as well as later films such as Postcards from the Edge (1990) based on Carrie Fisher’s (1956-2016 cardiac arrest) semi-autobiographical novel. Nichols was not known for his conspiracy thrillers and the film lacks any real spark or tension, perhaps except for the climactic bomb placement.
What is moving about the film is the attachment of the dolphins to Scott and Van Devere.
“Ma loves Fa and Bea,” says Van Devere in one scene.
Especially at the end when Scott tells the dolphins to leave because bad government agents are coming to take them all away.
Scott tells Fa that Pa “is not” or is dead. And Scott and Van Devere walk off – “don’t turn around” – with Fa calling out Pa’s name as he can’t believe what Pa is saying. Fa finally departs to Delerue’s swelling music. That’s when the tears come for me.
So Fa joins Bea and told to avoid man and forget Ma and Pa, swims off to survive in the wild as Scott and Van Devere wait in the shade of the palm trees on the island for the bad guys to possibly kill them off.
“It’s like we’re having a dream, or a psychotic fantasy,” says actor John David Carson (1952-2009 lymphoma) about their talking with dolphins, somewhere in the movie.
While Scott says to him that not since his youth had he seen “the infinite possibilities” after he had begun to talk to Fa. When he says this, it is the innocence of the dolphins who befriend man with no other motive or self-interest other than love and trust. They are not a part of a broad conspiracy, they don’t really seem to know hate. No wonder they are a symbol of love and peace.
In the film, the exploitation, whether in terms of warfare or commerciality is touched upon slightly… but was that why Lilly abandoned the studies? Or was he just restless and bored and found it to be a dead end? It remained one of his many fascinations.
After the last day of filming, according to Buck Henry, the dolphins that starred in the film escaped to sea and never returned. Like they knew the experiment was over.
Compared to Flipper, both the television show (1964-67) and the 1996 movie, The Day of the Dolphin is superior entertainment albeit a bit slow and inert, like forever living in a pool of water. Ultimately it doesn’t escape itself and reach any great heights, dare I say, by “Fa”.
Altered States is far more superior. The film stars William Hurt (1950-), Blair Brown (1946-) and Bob Balaban (1945-), a rather inexperienced cast in terms of motion pictures, selected by the original director of the movie Arthur Penn (1922-2010 heart failure). Penn was fired after clashing with the screenwriter and original author Paddy Chayefsky (1923-81 cancer). Chayefsky usually had “artistic control” on the films he wrote such as The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976) which are both excellent, perhaps as a result. That Penn was “fired” was the only way Penn could get a cheque for his work and he and Chayefsky remained friends.
The new director was Brit Ken Russell (1927-2011) who hadn’t been able to find work after the flop of his underrated Valentino (1977). He and Chayefsky clashed even worse as the pair were like chalk and cheese – Russell the visual director and Chayefsky the literal screenwriter. It was all a matter of vision and both men had it in spades which is probably why the end result is rather entertaining.
In the end, Chayefsky had his name removed from the credits, settling for the pseudonym “Sidney Aaron” which were his given birth names.
His original screenplay about the search for man’s true self was originally cooked up as a joke between screenwriter Herb Gardner (1934-2003 lung disease), director Bob Fosse (1927-87 heart attack) and Chayefsky in the opulent Russian Tea Room restaurant in New York using Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a basis.
However, Chayefsky’s original three page outline and then 87 page treatment turned into an obsession of a couple of years and the novel of Altered States resulted, followed by the screenplay and film.
Chayefsky obviously studied scientist Lilly’s writings on sensory deprivation under the influence of hallucinogens in isolation tanks although the scientist said that he was never consulted personally by the author.
Lilly’s use of hallucinogens resulted with a colleague jumping around and screaming like some unknown creature for almost a half hour in his laboratory. Upon returning to reality, this colleague said he had transgressed into a chimp being chased up a tree by a leopard. No tank was used in that case but it seemed to be inspirational.
The film Altered States focuses on the isolation tank experiments and shows that under the influence of mind-altering drugs, man could possibly revert to his basic Neolithic self. Even to the point of physically becoming that being!
The Doors song Light My Fire is playing as the front door opens on Hurt’s character at a party. Open the doors of perception…
“I’m not even sure it’s a disease,” says scientist Hurt about schizophrenia to fellow wiz kid and soon to be lover Blair Brown at the party. Hurt is known to be a little warped and off kilter himself. For him, sex is a religious experience, so imagine how he’d react in an isolation tank under the influence of peyote!
Ken Russell said the film used much of Chayefsky’s script despite the writer leaving the production after three weeks of rehearsals. He didn’t hang around for filming which he did on previous projects as Russell is said to have had him banned from the set. The writer was picking out such things as the colour of the isolation tank being wrong, which must have been very annoying to Russell. Chayefsky wanted Russell fired but the studio put its foot down and wouldn’t go for a third director.
Critic for Time magazine Richard Corliss (1944-2015 stroke) was one of the movie’s champions. He described Altered States as an anthology and glorification of American pop movies such as Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien and even Love Story. All very popular movies over the years! Corliss said there was no doubt it was Chayefsky’s dialogue.
Indeed the film is very talky although there are major “action” and “effect” scenes.
“You know of course I’m supposed to be a little bit nuts,” says Hurt to Brown about their relationship.
“A little bit… you’re an unmitigated madman,” she intimates, but in a nice way. But she criticises him for possibly selling his soul for what she describes as a “great truth”.
Is madness another level of being? Does it tap into the primitive? What of the mad who suffer from the beauty of religious mania? Where they see an almost perfect vision and feeling? Where they get a feeling of overwhelming peace as opposed to violent psychosis? There are people who swing between such states.
Well, if they’re off their medication!!
Yet Hurt is a bit mad while studying the mad… does it give him insight?
Hurt is a great choice in the lead and it is not surprising he went on to win a Best Actor Oscar later in his career for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985).
“You simply replace God with the original self,” says Brown facetiously on a drunken night out with friends as Hurt goes on about “looking for our true selves”. He says it is ironic that the general public want to seek this for themselves but not on the far-reaching level Hurt has in mind.
Is God a delusion? But how empty would the universe be without such a delusion if it is one at all? How devoid of hope to think this spell on Earth is all you get! Yet Hurt’s genius doesn’t need a God, despite his religious mania, as his head is so full of other ideas most of the time. Perhaps he believes in reincarnation.
Hurt visits some Mexican Indians where he is told “out of this nothing will come your unborn soul”. When he takes some magic mushrooms or some such concoction, Russell’s visual style kicks in as he takes the viewer on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. The trip scene is interesting as bodies dissolve into sand and Hurt wakes to find he has killed a lizard. The Lizard King and Jim Morrison and The Doors remain a bit of a hallucinogenic mix. It is this drug that he takes back to the laboratory to continue within the isolation tank. He takes so much of the drug that it is having a physical side effect on Hurt’s body. It transcends the metaphysical and the spiritual.
“You’ve had a very unusual instance of genetic regression,” says Brown about one of his isolation tank experiences where he emerges bleeding from the mouth. She thinks there is the possibility of cancer.
But it is Hurt’s full blown regression that is “a whole new force in nature” which is scary – or ridiculous, depending on how you look at it – as Hurt emerges from the tank a full blown Neanderthal man who goes on a rampage in the desolate late night city streets, ending with killing a goat at the local zoo.
Thus we have the Jekyll and Hyde theme in Altered States, along with the gorilla as murderer from Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
The message of the film seems to be if you are even just a little bit mad, don’t take drugs as it could have serious side effects.
Slightly embarrassed at being found naked in a zoo enclosure next to a dead goat, Hurt can only say “the implications are staggering” while his wife wants to take him to a psychiatrist.
“It was the most supremely satisfying time of my life,” said Hurt about his primal experience.
Later he stands in an open doorway as if director Russell wants us to know about The Doors of Perception, which is a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963 laryngeal cancer) about his psychedelic experience on mescaline. It’s also where the band got their name. While Huxley had a good intellectual trip in that book, Hurt’s is horror movie stuff in comparison, which is why the film works, as he prepares to enter the tank yet again…
“We could be screwing around with his whole genetic structure,” says wife Brown panicking before the chain reaction happens again. This time it’s all flashing lights and microscopic photography – anyway it’s very trippy, like a trip across the universe only within the self. I think the scene would have been impossible for Chayefsky to convey in terms of the script and visual effects artist Bran Ferren (1953-) has done a good job in tandem with Russell.
Back to scientist Lilly who said after one isolation tank trip: “ I was suspended in water for several hours at a time, and I noticed that my skin gradually became more and more sensitive to tactile stimuli and an intense sense of pleasure resulted.” He said further: “If stimuli was carried too far it became intensely irritating” and he reasoned that the dolphin suspended in water its whole life probably had intensely sensitive skin.
So he linked the two in the end but whereas man found the experience painful and physically negative, the dolphin suspended in water cannot touch itself and suffer this pain. But this sensitivity has something to do with its intelligence and communication with its own. Lilly also said of the tank experience and its feeling of omnipresence and the extra-terrestrial – you must return to reality “engage in sex, have children and participate in the whole human scenario”. Probably a bit of a narrow-minded way to say the whole experiment was close to onanism or masturbation. I guess cavemen were prone to it more than civilised man. So Lilly moved onto his next project…
At the end of Altered States, Hurt wants to be a family man as he returns home after being in that ultimate moment of terror which is the beginning of all life. That’s how he describes it anyway. He’s done with the experiment too!
“It’s human life that is real,” he says in the climactic coda where love conquers all with the loving touch of man and woman. As the pair transform visually into something the effect has Blair Brown look a lot like a colourized version of The Astounding She-Monster and William Hurt like the monster from Basket Case as well as a piece of chewed up bubble gum… before returning to their “normal” naked selves holding each other. Cue the words: “I love you…”
And there we have it, the missing link.