23 August 2010

Night of the Sharks

Italy – 1988
Director – Tonino Ricci
Media Home Entertainment, 1990, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 27 minutes

Whether or not he intended it, writer/director Tonino Ricci managed to revive explicitly in Night of the Sharks many of the cinematic tropes that had become taboo yet implicit in popular Euro/American film by the time this was made. It immediately evokes an era when overt racial characterization was the norm, with ethnic characters that are so cartoonish that they seem to belong more in an American film of the 40’s or 50’s than of the late 80’s. It’s as if the practiced subtlety of Hollywood prejudice was profoundly lost in translation. Perhaps Ricci (who also co-wrote) thought that if he was just more blatant audiences would like it that much more. Because of a few moments of sloppy editing I get the impression this film was longer and gorier at one point but was cropped to retain what must have been perceived as the more appealing elements in a trimmed running time. At 87 minutes, a poor mix of action and intrigue steeped in crude racism barely warrants the title “Night of the Sharks”.

Life in the affluent U.S. is difficult. One must toil and toe the line to keep even a modicum of dignity and stability, and a lifetime of struggle rarely results in anything more than terminal averageness. That is why Latin America and the Caribbean are so appealing. It is untroubled by the modern complexities of civilization, making it desirable, nigh on imperative that Northerners take advantage. Domination isn’t a matter of intent then, it’s simply the natural state of things because those Others are in need of leadership and guidance. Of course, no matter how hard they try they can never quite achieve parity. It is a well worn assumption that the Global South is an impoverished and backwards fruit ripe for the gringo picking. If you want something or want to make something for yourself, Latin America is the place to go. It is escape and opportunity all in one. All of this is simply the backdrop however for Night of the Sharks' peculiar Italian take on the transnational cultural politics of the Americas.

The anonymous* locals in this case fit the bill perfectly. Lazy, shiftless men sit around waiting to fight gamble or drink, both at the slightest provocation. The local woman Juanita in particular is the idealized exotic subject, never quite acceptable in polite white society, but desirable and always, always available to satisfy the protagonists needs no questions asked. Dave (Treat Williams) likes to spend his time in a sleepy beach village drinking beer, sleeping with Juanita and laughing at the bufoonish antics of his buddy Paco (Antonio Fargas). Paco also serves as Dave’s foil, being both black and Latin (Panamanian to be exact) and dressed awkwardly to the nines in a baggy white suit. His is the quintessential “coon” character, cowardly, lazy and constantly pulling inept attempts at “refinement,” all which serve to reify Dave’s superior cultural status over and over again.

Dave’s reverie of self-satisfaction is soon wrecked by the arrival of a series of painful reminders of his former life. His brother James shows up from the States with a load of stolen diamonds and a bunch of hired goons trying to get them back. Shortly after James is killed leaving Dave with the diamonds, Dave's ex-wife Liz also shows up to to make things even more difficult. Liz repeatedly tries to deny Dave the expression of his masculine independence, something Juanita surely never did. However, she is reassuringly white and thus poses no threat. Juanita suddenly vanishes from the script, nowhere to be seen.

The remainder of the story are Dave's confrontations with these external reminders; quibbles with Liz, trying to keep Paco in line and one prolonged shootout with the goons sent to recover the diamonds. But the plot does actually feature a shark, the one-eyed “Cyclops” with whom Dave has a longstanding rivalry. Cyclops makes his presence felt in important if peripheral ways. Dave and Cyclops’ relationship is really more symbiotic than antagonistic to tell the truth because Cyclops never goes away and is never defeated. It is Dave’s lingering sense of identity and past, a perpetual threat of return to anonymity. Dave has tried to escape, and he won this battle, but no matter how easy his exile may be or how much he tries to justify it, it is always there waiting in the reef for another chance to bite him in the ass.

* NotS was filmed in the Dominican Republic

This gnarly screencap of Janet Agren's Liz getting recycled by Cyclops only lasts about .5 seconds on this VHS version so I think it was sloppily censored. I don't know what would make someone think that cheesy gunfights and Jim Crow should be left in instead. Maybe they knew their target audience better than I give them credit for.
 An amazing poster by prolific Italian artist Symeyoni, from Wrong Side of the Art

Poster that became the VHS box, this comes courtesy of Movie Poster Shop
. The artist's signature is "S. Dewey", but I cannot find anything else on or by this person. Any tips would be appreciated.

1 comment:

Ty said...

Enjoyed your review! Gotta Love Treat!

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