June 22, 2010
Last hear I wrote about how Susan Gailey, a minor television ingenue of the seventies, figured unexpectedly in the Roman Polanski rape case and also in the 2008 documentary about that case, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Now I’ve noticed that one of last year’s major documentaries – the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar, as a matter of fact – also has a classic television connection.
If you’ve seen The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’s terrific expose of brutal Japanese dolphin fishing, then you already know what I’m talking about. The protagonist of the film is one Ric O’Barry, a youthful sixty-something year-old whose full-time occupation is the fight against marine mammal fishing and, more broadly, against animal captivity in general. O’Barry’s story contains a dramatic twist that’s the stuff of great drama. When he was in his twenties, he was an animal trainer who worked on Flipper, the Florida-based, Ivan Tors-produced kids’ show about a boy and his dolphin. In The Cove, O’Barry claims that he captured all five dolphins who played Flipper, and that he trained them while living in the dockside house that was a main Flipper location. In 1970, one of the dolphins died in O’Barry’s arms (he describes it as a kind of suicide), and he began to rethink the ethics of keeping the mammals in captivity.
O’Barry is a controversial figure with a lot of enemies (especially in Japan) and some detractors, although I couldn’t find a well-sourced, bylined takedown of him. Among other things, he changed his name at some point: when he worked on Flipper (and a number of other marine-related Florida movies and television shows), O’Barry was credited as Ric O’Feldman, which also sounds like a stage name. Just who is this guy? O’Barry may be guilty of some Hollywood-style self-mythologizing, and while his commitment to his cause seems genuine, I wish The Cove had offered a more balanced portrait of the man on whom much of its credibility hangs. This profile adds some detail to O’Barry’s ideological transformation, placing it in the context of the hippie movement of the late sixties. O’Barry hung around with Michael Lang and Joni Mitchell, and went to India on a journey of self-discovery after Flipper bit the dust in 1967. When he came back, unlike a lot of hippies, he left behind his old life and set out to do some good.
Fans of caper narratives will also enjoy The Cove, because once O’Barry’s motley gang of activists plot to infiltrate the secret cove where the brutal dolphin slaughter takes place, the documentary plays out like an episode of Mission: Impossible. (There’s even a dossier scene, almost.) I’m not the world’s biggest lover of critters, but I defy anyone to see this film and not be sickened by the cruel and (because dolphin meat is too mercury-laced to eat) pointless slaughter of these beautiful, intelligent animals.
My only complaint about The Cove is the same one I lodged about Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: that excerpts from older 4:3 material, like the Flipper series, have been cropped to matched the 16:9 aspect ratio of the new footage. There is absolutely no reason not to pillarbox these clips so that they appear intact within the frame, and film buffs should continue to complain loudly about this practice until documentarians discontinue it. Butchering Flipper is not acceptable, and neither is butchering Flipper.
Animal trainer Ric O’Barry (center, in the red trunks), then billed as Ric O’Feldman, also played on-screen bits in various Flipper episodes.