Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In the water

‘We have come as a delegation since what we want to ask you is a bit delicate’, they said. ‘We are the fishmen of the film that you just saw. We are under no illusion about our beauty but we’re asking you not to be afraid.’ 
‘You are absolutely hideous’ I said in an understatement, ‘but I’m not afraid.’ 
Why did I choose to watch Island of the Fishmen (1979) by Sergio Martino that evening over many other more dignified films? Was is the nostalgia of small adventure films, quickly made and quickly botched? The exacerbated desire to be surprised? The emotion at the idea to see again, even dubbed, the old Joseph Cotten? In any case, they were here, their squames dripping water on the wood floor, and I knew that these carnivorous piles were fundamentally good and incapable of meanness.  
‘You see’ said their leader, looking for his words, ‘We know that Island of the Fishmen is a film rarely seen. But for us, the fishmen that believed in the script, the adventure is a bit unpleasant since the film is sold under our name and yet we only appear in a few superficial and badly edited horror scenes.’ 
‘Be fair’ I said to show good will ‘there is only one beautiful scene in the film, a real poetic moment, and it’s because of you.’ 
‘Which one, which one?’ The voices said.  
‘I’m thinking of the moment when Amanda comes among you and you emerge out of the water, around her, with your iguana-like claws and piranha teeth, as she distributes a bit of coloured liquid that you drink with a glutinous clumsiness, and if I remember correctly, with little plaintive screams that work very well… If only all the film was made of this water…’ 
‘Ah yes… water…’ muttered the few monsters who, already, were finding the atmosphere stifling. ‘Let’s go back in it, that will be better.’ 
‘No’ said their leader. ‘We must know. We must know what was our true role in this hellish film which we never understood since no one ever told us about the script.’ 
‘Yes’ said a voice that couldn’t bear it any longer. ‘We want to know who we are!’ 
‘Have you seen The Island of Doctor Moreau? Yes? Well, it’s a bit like that. On an island that doesn’t feature on any map, a paranoid adventurer keeps a mad scientist locked up. The scientist (an idealist wanting to do good for future mankind) aims to create a hybrid between man and fish. But the adventurer (a dishonest misanthrope) wants to train the fishmen to dive ever further to bring back treasures from the deep end of Atlantis.’ 
‘That’s what it was? Atlantis?’ 
‘Yes because it’s somewhere in the Caribbean islands that the famous continent was submerged!’ 
‘And the young girl?’ 
‘Amanda (a rather bland thing) is the scientist’s daughter and only she knows how to talk to you to calm you down.’ 
‘And the young man?’ 
‘Claude (an appalling fop) is another doctor washed up on the island. He thwarts all the evil plans and manages to escape the island when a volcanic eruption destroys it.’ 
‘And us?’ 
‘You are the ancient indigenous people of the island on who the scientist (Joseph Cotten) successfully tested his grafts. You retain some intelligence but not the gift of speech. You’re too strong and you tear apart a lot of people. The audience is meant to be very scared by you. Then, it gets used to you. At the end, it can’t care less. When the volcano erupts, you save the star couple by swimming under water and you abandon them on a beach.’ 
Silence follows, and I knew I had said too much. I was about to follow with reservations on the film style but I gave up. The harm had been done. I was facing half a dozen wrecked coelacanths.  
‘We suspected this’, the leader said, ‘but it’s always good to know. Be frank to the end: can it be said that the film in which we play, Island of the Fishmen, is awful?’ 
‘It’s a very weak film I’m afraid.’ 
‘A dud?’ 
‘Yes.’ 
‘Ok, time to go guys’, the leader of the fishmen said. ‘Don’t forget that we can’t stay out of the water too long. Can we use your bowl?’ 
Having dived back in the small screen, they swam joyless for a while then disappeared between two commercials.  
First published in Libération on 26 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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