Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Pool by pool, they form a river


Less obscure than it used to be, this cult classic curio deserves every look it gets.

Directed by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack
Written by Eleanor Perry (based on the short story by John Cheever)
With Burt Lancaster (Ned Merrill), Janet Landgard (Julie Hooper), Michael Kearney (Kevin Gilmartin), and Janice Rule (Shirley Abbott)

Spoiler alert: mild

It's tempting, just terribly tempting, to overvalue The Swimmer for its sheer strangeness—and, having never been one to resist temptation, I expect I probably do.  But there's substance within its strangeness, and The Swimmer proves itself, simultaneously, one of American cinema's most gripping portraits of its favorite theme, the Sad White Male, and one of its most successful symbolist weirdies, too.  Pretentious and literary, yet somehow easy—blunt as all possible hell, in every last stab it makes at its metaphors—it's frankly all the better for it.

It is, anyway, just about as strange as any drama could get without tipping over into actual surrealism, whereas the film has already crossed the line into a waking hallucination, albeit one experienced solely by its protagonist, and by the audience secondhand, thanks to its rigorous protagonist's point-of-view.  There's something to appreciate about the strangeness of that, all by itself: a movie that's self-evidently trippy as anything, but won't take the very last step into a totally untethered madness.  And make no mistake: The Swimmer is definitely about madness, both the kind of madness that you'd happily call a disease, and the kind that goes unnoticed, but only because it surrounds you every day.  To give you a taste of The Swimmer's strangeness, then, I really need only relate its opening scene.  And it truly is a hook for the ages, I'd say, so if you're not at least a little intrigued by it, I guess we really don't share much of a taste in moving pictures.

We begin on a late summer day, spying a fit but aging man, wearing nothing but a pair of tight black swimshorts.  He clambers through the Connecticut underbrush until he arrives upon a backyard swimming pool, which he avails himself of as if he owns the place, though we quickly learn he does not; the man is Ned Merrill, and the pool belongs to two friends of some long acquaintance, a couple of distant neighbors, who wonder aloud where their pal has been the past few years.  Ned makes the necessary smalltalk with good cheer, and when another guest stops by, he's pleased enough to reminisce about their childhood sport.  But Ned resists their overtures toward socializing, his eyes seemingly fixed on something out there on the horizon.  (And their little Connecticut mansion certainly provides a good view.)  A woman off-handedly mentions another pool, installed by another neighbor, and Ned lights up with an idea, the idea that shall ultimately lead him on the great quest of The Swimmer.  "Pool by pool, they form a river leading to our house," he says, airily, and he explains his poetic nothing to his hosts: one by one, he shall swim all the pools each of his neighbors have laid down, eight miles across the county.  They scoff, but the notion has already overtaken him.  And so Ned begins his trek, over the land—and occasionally, but crucially, under the crystal clear water—back up the hill, and back home.

It turns out, of course, that this eminently Freudian metaphor is exactly what it seems, and Ned's mission across the country reveals itself rapidly as a nigh-on mystical journey through Ned's checkered past, and through the elements of a psyche that (you'd never guess) is utterly broken.  Meanwhile—no doubt equally unsurprisingly—Ned's magical mystery tour of the Great Estates of Exurban Connecticut also becomes a satirical study of its blisteringly bourgeois inhabitants, including (and especially) Ned himself.

It is thus a cruelly and astringently hilarious thing, The Swimmer, though its laughs are typically bitter, often arriving right before a, "What, seriously?"  Its catalog of the soulless rich is grim reading, and it really depends upon the needs of the individual scene whether its take on their foibles is a humane one, or purely contemptuous.  (The nudist politicians, for example, are very much a case of the latter.)  The signature image of The Swimmer comes early, I think: the highball glass full of expensive booze, thrust into the frame and eclipsing our swimmer as he emerges from his first dive.  It sums up the basic shape of the lifestyle that's been afforded these folks, by God-knows-what upper-middle-class machinations: daytime substance abuse revolving entirely around banalities, set against a backdrop of ritzy style and at least the potential for pleasant leisure.  Nevertheless, it's surely no accident that the only man amongst their number who wants to swim is the man whose obsession is spelled out in the title.  The Swimmer takes a rather dim view of its representative sample of America's bourgeoisie, so inutterably petit in their aspirations and passions.  It certainly takes little effort to decode its point of view, that nothing they build is ever more than set-dressing for a lifetime of conformist performance.  Somehow, even those who've actually achieved the American Dream only end up squandering it once they get it.

You might think that Ned's an anomaly, his basic virility and his romanticism marking him as ineluctably different; and while The Swimmer's spice is its social satire, its substance is universal.  We can recognize that Ned is probably just another blockheaded salaryman who made it to the medium-big-time in the era of America's greatest and most widespread economic prosperity, yet he's incredibly, even suspiciously easy to sympathize with, even once we begin to learn more about him, and realize that nothing he's ever had was anything he ever wanted, either—that he was a terrible husband, quite likely a very bad father, and perhaps even a below-average adulterer, too.

Despite it all, we are swept along, out of perverse fascination for the freak, if nothing else, and (if we are of a more sentimental bent) by the childlike make-believe of his grand odyssey.  And it's in Ned's odyssey that The Swimmer becomes something great.  It is, in the end, something vastly more than the sum of its scenes, though each one is indeed quite weird and pointy, and almost impossible not to gawk at.  (They'd each be interesting as bite-sized pieces of melancholy, even if they didn't serve, taken altogether, as a complete taxonomy of the psychological pathologies of being middle-aged and middle-class.)

Thus it becomes increasingly, desperately apparent that Ned's return to the water is the manifestation of his need to recapture something: not just youth (though his botched seduction of his former babysitter, initially charmed by his whimsy, is surely that), nor is it just a chance to correct the mistakes of the past (though his fatherly doting upon a latchkey rich kid is that), nor is it even just happiness itself (though his confrontation with his burned ex-mistress must be that, as well).  It's the possibility of happiness he seeks.  Ned, for all that he alone in this world of graying, flabby wealth still seems to have both a spirit and a flesh, is not different, fundamentally: his has been a lifetime in pursuit of an identity based on status and wealth, and when those fall away, what he's left with is nothing to call his own.  And so we can keep calling this a satire of a certain demographic, if we really want; but we probably know, in our hearts, that that's not all it is.  But that is how The Swimmer can play so acutely as an intellectual exercise for so long, keeping your attention and your interest, without you realizing that it's setting you up for a final scene that makes you realize, perhaps with a tear or two, that you did want something for Ned, along the lines of what he wanted for himself: the possibility of redemption.  But The Swimmer, quite brutally, leaves you with no redemption at all.

The other reason, though, is that The Swimmer is such a terrifically well-made vehicle for its themes and emotions—which is a little surprising, considering that it was victim to such intensive meddling from its producer, Sam Spiegel, and also considering that it barely even got made, despite having the wealthy Spiegel's backing.  (There's a certain self-deprecating smugness to The Swimmer, I'll admit, that isn't completely attractive.)  Anyway, The Swimmer's production problems were legion, it turns out: its credited director, Frank Perry, was fired and replaced by Sydney Pollack, whose additions were pretty substantial; and, when The Swimmer hit its budgetary wall, star Burt Lancaster had to pay for an extra day of shooting out of his own pocket; even the key character of Ned's ex-mistress was replaced by an entirely different actress, long after the first one had shot their whole scene.

In spite of these obstacles, The Swimmer still wound up an unimpeachable little piece of late-60s filmmaking: David Quaid's beautiful, bucolic cinematography lovingly caresses the well-manicured homes and countryside of Ned's suburban neighborhood, fully embracing his own subjectivity, while also being quite poisonously ironic; Marvin Hamlisch's lush orchestral score does the exact same thing, and makes itself felt with even more emotional force.  The attention-grabbing charm of The Swimmer is bound up completely in the magical realist register these elements conjure; at its slipperiest, it even approaches experimentalism.  I'm not the first one to make the observation that, being shot in 1966 (and arriving only in 1968), The Swimmer stands at a crossroads in Hollywood history: it's not exactly "New Hollywood," but it isn't the Old, either.  It looks both forwards and backwards, in its way—oddly, it comes across as almost resentfully nostalgic for the very era it was actually made in.  Call it New Hollywood, for Old People, then.

Either way, The Swimmer is absolutely wracked with genuine bizarro-world technique.  Perry (or, possibly, Pollack) turns out to be outright infatuated with egregious dissolve transitions and delirious soft focus and deliberately-overlong montages.  He even gets up to some early POV shakycam.  Really, though, there's barely a single image in the film that isn't at least a little bit peculiar.  After all, the single most salient aspect of its whole damn visual identity is the gonzo spectacle of a almost-naked middle-aged man, dominating frame after frame after frame and wandering all over hill and vale, and positively defying you to call it something other than normal.  The trick, and it's a good one, is how it becomes less and less normal as the film goes by.  That idyllic, sun-kissed cinematogaphy fades; that score becomes urgently plaintive; and that dream-logic makes contact with Ned's reality, disintegrating entirely over the course of 95 enormously melodramatic minutes.

So if we're looking for the single biggest reason to care about Ned, or to care about The Swimmer, then that must be its melodrama's hero—that is, Burt Lancaster himself.  Often called his finest performance, I'm certainly a believer: it is astoundingly great, starting just with the look of the man, which in 1968 was the very avatar of extravagant masculinity just beginning to decline.  With the physicality to fill out those tiny shorts, Lancaster makes for such a seeming aspirational figure that he might've pulled off the role without even acting all that much.  But act he assuredly does—the film was a passion project for Lancaster, which helps explain why he was so dreadful and domineering on the set.  (That, in turn, may explain Lancaster's co-stars, none of whom are very good; but, then, as they only amount to props in Ned's own psychodrama—people he's not at all willing to grant any kind of full personhood to—this actually works out surpassingly well.)  Ah, but Lancaster: he is almost too perfect.  He begins a faraway visionary; by the end, he is crushed and pathetic; and in every scene between those two points, he unravels just a little bit more, a breathtaking master class in how to modulate and pace a performance that, admittedly, is one straight line, but a straight line into depths we'd usually rather not contemplate for a man that, all things being equal, we'd probably like to be.

Score:  9/10

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