by Douglas Messerli
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Michael Cacoyannis | Otan ta psaria vgikan sti steria (The Day the Fish Came Out)
by Douglas Messerli
by Douglas Messerli
Michael Cacoyannis (writer and director) Otan ta psaria vgikan sti steria (The Day the Fish Came Out) / 1967
Michael Cacoyannis’ 1967 film The Day the Fish Came Out has probably received the worst reviews of any film of a noted international director. It came out of a period in which campy, sometimes over-the-top comedies such as Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) were quite popular. And it shares some of the political satire of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and the even earlier Jack Arnold piece of nonsense The Mouse That Roared (1959)—both films for which I, myself, have little admiration, and neither of which I see as truly “funny.”
Yet critics were particularly mean when it came to the Cacoyannis work, since he had previously made grander epic realist productions such as Zorba the Greek and Electra. The New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther, for example, described it as “flabby” and “foolish,” going on to evaluate it as “a witless farcical account of how an unnamed, far-ranging power tries to cover up the fact that one of its planes has accidentally dropped some fissionable material on a barren, sleepy Greek island.” That “unnamed country,” quite obviously was the USA.
Tom Milne of the usually insightful Time Out summarized: “Cacoyannis turns it all into hideously lumbering farce, so unconvincing that one is heartily glad when the unprepossessing characters at least seem likely to be overwhelmed by radiation.”
Even the bland TV Guide called it a “silly and pretentious nuclear disaster drama.”
Based partly on the factual 1966 loss by the American Force of 4 hydrogen bombs while flying over Palomares, Spain, the “McGuffin” of the film is a similar loss of two atomic bombs and a nearly impregnable metal box containing something so noxious that we are not even told what it is. The pilot and navigator of the plane (Colin Blakely and Tom Courtenay) drop their load this time on the nearly uninhabited Greek island of Karos before themselves parachuting from the plane and swimming ashore now, somewhat inexplicably, dressed only in their skivvies. And a special American force, headed by a Greek-speaking Mr. Elias (Sam Wanamaker) is quickly transported to the island to seek out the deadly missiles and the mysterious metal box. As Milne’s review, quoted above, suggests, the film ends with the death of the fish in the surrounding waters and the likely destruction of all living in and visiting the island’s small village.
This is the baseline story, but no one with any sense of humor might care about this silly series of scary events. Cacoyannis makes it clear from the very beginning, through an epilogue comically spoofing the Spanish event and with slickly clever credits by Maurice Binder, that signals the fact that his tale is not really about bombs and human destruction but is about an entirely different issue: in this case a kind of metamorphosis of everything and everyone in this dystopian world. If Karos begins as a sleepy village of mostly old men and a few women, it ends up as a kind of sheik tourist and gay paradise that, having achieved such a new identity, is simply required to be destroyed given the moral judgments of the film’s audiences. In presenting his theme, accordingly, Cacoyannis almost invites his viewer’s disdain in a way that might at least reveal their own hypocrisy. But that’s taking a big chance, which, in this case obviously, just didn’t pay off.
Perhaps seeing it in hindsight is fortunate; today we can perceive the campy celebration of this film within a different sexual context, if nothing else. Yet, it’s hard to even get hold of a CD. I bought one of the very last copies off of Amazon to be able to view it. Although I heard it sometimes appears on TV film channels, I’ve never been able to catch it.
To accomplish his ends, the director immediately determines to transform all the military straight men into gay simulacrums. The survivors of the plane crash, both of whom describe themselves as married, are immediately forced to run around the rocky island not only in underpants, but particularly in the young Courtenay’s case, in what is almost a cotton jockstrap. His camera comically strokes the two men’s bodies, revealing even the size and shape of Courtenay’s small un-cut cock and the more hirsute chest of Blakely, both of whom, without clothes, without money, and without even the ability to make a telephone call to explain that they are still living, have certainly become something “other” than they had been before. Indeed, Cacoyannis almost immediately shifts them from being stock-comic figures into representing voyeuristic images to his audience. By showing them almost as nude, and commenting on the fact over and over again—at one point the two even show up on screen with their underpants upon their heads as a substitute sunblock—forces us to perceive them in a new context. They are no longer pilot and navigator but two grown men living nearly naked in the wild. No wonder so many viewers of the day squirmed at the sight! And the slightly stupid character that Courtenay is particularly an appetizing morsel, playing a kind of gay version of Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot.
If that isn’t enough, an entire squadron of hunky military advisers is asked to pretend it is visiting the island to scout out new places for a large hotel. The director is also credited as the costume designer. In the name of “going casual,” he clothes them in the outlandish pants, shirts, and sunglasses—with large mesh cutouts in their pants, mesh-woven shirts, posing them even without their shirts for most of movie, Wanamaker’s hairy chest being a particular focus of the camera lens—that they look like the gayest of gayest travelers that one might imagine.
Upon witnessing their descent upon the island, the pilot and navigator can only suppose they are a gay contingent of visitors, and one of the outrageously dressed squadron members, spotting the boys in underwear, presumes they have having sex among the rocks. Throughout, Cacoyannis shows as many male ass shots as Hollywood films have always portrayed, if somewhat more subtly, of their female sexpot heroines.
Like any good group of gay boys, these want to be alone (they need to search the island for the missiles and deadly box, if you recall)! And, eventually, to establish that separateness, they buy up an entire part of the island and fence it off, suggesting that they are testing soil samples, etc. for their new solar hotel. To please those in the island who do not own this valueless property, they put them to work on creating a meaningless highway to the site.
Although the military men might see the local peasants as backward and uninformed, they quickly ring up the Greek national government with the news of the proposed transformation of their island, determining to spiff up their village for the deluge of possible new tourists. Their bare, white washed walls are suddenly painted with bright pinks, blues, greens, yellows and other colors. Numerous homes overnight become hotels. The road workers suddenly uncover a beautiful ancient sculpture. The small island town, just like the military men, also experiences a metamorphosis. Things here are suddenly very “gay,” in the older meaning of that word.
Too bad there are still a few stubborn peasants, particularly one fisherman and his wife, who, having discovered the large metal box are determined to open it and find what they greedily believe is a cache of gold. When they finally succeed, they discovers only a few redish-brown egg-shaped containers, probably holding deadly viruses, most of which the fisherman throws into the sea and a few of which he wife unknowingly tosses into the village’s water source. The fish rise to the surface, dead (“fish,” one might remember, was once a derogatory name for women in gay circles), and what looks like an eclipse of the sun appears out of nowhere as a public broadcast microphoned message is drowned out by their music. Tomorrow the US will see just such a sight.
There will always be, suggests Cacoyannis, a few hold-out cretins who cannot enter into the current of joy and pleasure. These are called critics, I suspect, who always rip into all the fun.
Yesterday, when I shared the story of this film with my thirty-seven year-old friend, Pablo Capra, he suggested it sounded much more interesting than Zorba the Greek, a movie I’d dragged to a few weeks earlier. Enough said.
Los Angeles, August 20, 2017