Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Sense Of Personal Worth
We don’t want the truth. We’d rather just glide along in denial because the alternative is too painful. And if we’re forced to confront it there’s always the possibility we won’t be able to recover so maybe we never really do. It’s easier to simply dive into the water and forget about it all, hoping the few seconds it takes to swim from one end to the other will somehow carry us beyond, letting the beautiful days go on forever. In some ways, it’s better than really knowing. Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER never stops haunting in its avoidance of the truth, a great film although also one where the imperfections become apparent but maybe that makes it more alive, more willing to let you really confront it. Sometimes the perfect films can be a little dull anyway. Trying to rationalize its story is pointless since THE SWIMMER is never about figuring out that puzzle. You just have to accept the puzzle that will always be part of your life, one which you may never come close to figuring out.
Turning up at an old friend’s house one beautiful summer afternoon, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) uses the pool and catches up with the couple who live there but soon figures out that by passing through other yards with pools in the town he can essentially ‘swim’ home, taking a route which he instantly names the ‘Lucinda River’ after his beloved wife who he says is waiting for him. He sets off on the journey, encountering other people who live nearby including a few other old friends as well as the delighted surprise of a girl (Janet Landgard) who used to nurse a crush on him back when she babysat his kids and is now grown up. But as the day goes on the mood of the people he encounters, including a former lover (Janice Rule) who has never forgiven him for leaving her, begins to darken with some not so happy to see him at all and it becomes clear that what might be waiting for Ned Merrill at home will not be what he claims.
Deceptively simple as it begins, THE SWIMMER quickly gains in power and sneaks up on you as you discover what it really is. Things are too good to be true at first, as they should be, the way they usually seem on a summer day when you’re catching up with old friends that have been nowhere near the wreckage of your life. “We’ve missed you,” one of them says, although they never spend much time pressing him for details. They’re the people who are only part of the good times and just like in a dream they say things exactly the way you want them to. It’s a world where everything works out, but that dream soon shifts and the talk becomes all hostility and hushed conspiratorial tones, nothing where it should be, no one left to help. THE SWIMMER itself is like a dream but one that soon turns into a nightmare crossed with the aesthetics of a late 60s TV movie, one where the blocking is sometimes awkward and the acting by a few of the bit players a little too stiff, one where you can no longer tell if you’re on a set or location or maybe trapped somewhere in between.
That dream state holds all the way through as Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill encounters a horse out in a field, almost as if he himself caused it to materialize and he races it for a moment, as if to become one with the horse, to experience all the glory of feeling alive and it’s the way he believes the world always is, all laid out for him. But this version of reality crumbles and as much as he offers up his recurring toast of “Here’s to sugar on our strawberries” it becomes clear that what he has is anything but. Directed by Frank Perry, at least up to a point, with a screenplay by Eleanor Perry based on the short story by John Cheever, the production also included reshoots handled later on by Sydney Pollack. Some of the details of the troubled shoot can be found in the comprehensive special features on the Blu-ray of THE SWIMMER put out by Grindhouse Releasing but in the end there’s just the film, as strange as it is, as upsetting as it is. The final result is at its best extremely powerful even when it’s hard to pin down exactly why, always compelling even as a hushed quiet falls on a scene, as those small details that don’t quite connect haunt us since we somehow know that they would lead to the very thing we want to avoid.
It’s easy to see how the world of THE SWIMMER might have been among the inspirations for MAD MEN although one never imagines Don Draper having so many past acquaintances he would be happy to see. Set among the upper crust east coast milieu, some of those friends of Ned Merrill’s are fellow country club types used to the old way of doing things who don’t let the bad news concern them. It’s close enough to where I grew up in suburban New York that I can understand some of the feelings once removed, a SECONDS vibe of a man thrown out of his golden cage that is the only world he knows and unable to ever return. But it’s more than that, just as the poster tagline asks us, “When you talk about THE SWIMMER, will you talk about yourself?” as we wonder about all those people we’ve encountered and what they were really saying to us at those crucial moments, as you wonder what happened to your life on that path between houses. The film gets at the minutiae of those feelings and though it spends maybe a few minutes too long on Ned Merrill running through fields in glorious slow motion, in his current mindset he’s living much of his life in glorious slow motion already, strangely attuned to oddities in nature he encounters as if somehow connected to them as well as a reminder of how out of time he is. He’s already been ejected from this world, like the pool he’s told about that filters out nearly all solid matter and he’s trying to fight his way back in, not knowing where anything is anymore. Insisting that he’s a ‘very special human being’ with a purpose no one else can understand, one party guest played by Joan Rivers falls under that spell for half a second then gets what he really is, just another guy making the moves on her, like any guy at one of these suburban parties looking for the next drink. And when his daughters’ former babysitter practically refers to him as a god, telling him about the shirt she once stole from his closet the praise reinvigorates him for a few minutes but she finally sees him for the empty shirt he really is as well. We follow Ned Merrill partly because of his charisma (and, after all, because he’s Burt Lancaster) but by a certain point it’s hard to ignore how off he seems, how much he repeats certain phrases and how out of place he becomes standing around in nothing but that bathing suit, everyone around him looking for ways to avoid stating the obvious.
Each pool that he stops at for a swim becomes a reflection of his world, his mind, his fears, his entire existence in one form or another. The carefree teenagers, the older nudists who seem to feel that the world is theirs to do with, the old friends who are drinking, drinking, drinking (several people in the first scene are heard to say, “I drank too much last night,” an echo of the Cheever story’s opening line). Naturally, what looks to be the biggest pool he encounters is also the empty one, as empty as his quest ultimately is and he tells the boy who lives there with unseen parents jet setting around the world that “If you make believe hard enough that something is true than it is true to you,” which sounds like the worst piece of advice imaginable to give to a sad and lonely little boy come to think of it. But, in the end, that’s what Ned Merrill is anyway. When asked about his wife and daughters as he swims further down the river named for his beloved wife, Ned Merrill keeps repeating, “Lucinda is home, the girls are playing tennis” almost robotically by a certain point, as if he’s planted that information in his mind and refuses to believe otherwise, the truth that he’s become convinced exists.
He already thinks of himself as apart from everyone else, refusing that he’s ever going to become ordinary while some of the people around him are content to merely drink and get older, having gotten what they wanted and with no reason to go anywhere else. This adds to the sense of loneliness in between the homes, none of them really seem next to each other, adding to the unreal feeling of the entire journey. Characters gaze up at the blue sky of a day you’d think would never end but the darkness begins to fall in the film almost before we realize it, the chill begins to emerge and even Ned Merrill can’t keep up his veneer of happiness forever, with it becoming more and more clear that everyone he encounters knows something about him they’re not putting into words. Even some of the awkwardness in the film, like how much of his travels with Janet Landgard’s Julie Ann Hooper feels almost too sickly sweet with a good portion of it playing as cobbled together in the editing room via dubbed in lines after the fact but is itself like an idealized dream, all soft focus and praises exactly what you want to hear. Some dialogue implies that he’s been gone a while but he has no idea how much time has passed, where he is in time and no one else seems quite sure, either. Nothing much ever changes in the suburbs, anyway.
Determining who shot every inch of footage may be a crapshoot but I suspect that Frank Perry, along with wife Eleanor, had more of an interest in capturing that cockeyed local Connecticut vibe searching for the idiosyncratic, oddball touches of those parties and their guests. The colors seem to pop in the right Kodachrome way as if we’re watching super 8 home movies of these parties with everyone a little too happy as they wave at the camera and even quickly brushing on the inherent racism in that closed off world. Plus after stopping in at the Bunkers’ with Julie Ann where all his old friends were so welcoming, the nightmarish party thrown by the classless Biswangers (“those awful people” as we hear about them earlier, played by Dolph Sweet and Louise Troy) is that much worse with the hosts clearly showing off how well they’ve got it now with their party guests drinking, falling into the pool and shoving caviar down their throats, the sort who have presumably driven in from the outer boroughs and, god forbid, will migrate up to the suburbs themselves eventually. It’s as if Frank & Eleanor Perry (who later collaborated on LAST SUMMER and the great DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE before divorcing in 1971; Perry also directed PLAY IT AS IT LAYS in 1972 and, much later, MOMMIE DEAREST) knew deep down that the only way to live around there and survive was to ultimately disappear.
The scenes apparently directed (uncredited) by Sydney Pollack feel like he zeroed in more on the performances and the reverie in the lead character’s own mind but his staging also plays as more confident particularly during the extended sequence where Ned Merrill encounters former mistress Shirley Abbott, played the first time around by Barbara Loden but taken over in the reshoots by Janice Rule (Jimmy Stewart’s fiancé in BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE). Introduced reading the January 1967 issue of Films and Filming, Rule plays the part as giving into her own vulnerability until she just can’t take it anymore, unrelenting she gets in finally cutting down this former lover who’s suddenly turned up in her backyard uninvited as brutally as possible, saying just the right things to utterly destroy him. Running over 15 minutes the scene is practically its own short film, enormously powerful and continually fluid in the way it plays, resisting turning into a soap opera by the different layers each actor brings to the confrontation leading to how ordinary, and how cowardly, their affair sounds no matter how much he’s elevated it to myth in his own mind. Possibly just like the rest of his life.
The episodic nature means that the tonal shifts possibly caused by the reshoots aren’t as noticeable but but throughout there’s a vibe of that late 60s creative experimentation in the air, a period of filmmaking when reality could be fluid, so at its very best the film locates that middle ground between the dreamlike and the mundane so it knows when to pause for the quiet in the air, when to hold on his face. And the climactic visit to the community pool that Ned Merrill is so desperate to use that once he gets there appears to be both fairly normal and also a total glimpse into hell (I’ll always remember how, during my long ago first viewing, everything suddenly clicked together at this moment—I guess that’s how vivid some of those afternoons at the local pool are in my memory), even if it’s just a suburban hell. Capturing that nightmarish feel of him reduced to this place, forced to wash his feet in order to be worthy of entering this pit and practically reduced to groveling before the working class we can imagine he’s always condescended to. There’s nowhere left for him to go.
Maybe all of the pieces of THE SWIMMER don’t fit, like the occasional editing during dialogue scenes that appear designed to cut around weak performances, sometimes arrhythmic pacing and even the very first moment of dialogue feels like it contains lines have been looped in after the fact. The score by Marvin Hamlisch (his first) contains lovely melodies that tie in perfectly with the psychology of the lead character but it also goes a little too big at times as if the composer was determined to create the greatest, most emotional score ever heard in a film, which in itself is also kind of correct in addressing Ned Merrill’s mindset. His own story becomes mythic in his mind and that’s what the film becomes as well, impossible to shake and it’s possible that it might play best when watched late at night while drifting off to sleep so the next day you can try to figure out what you just saw. It’s an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode where we know the twist that’s coming, we just don’t want to admit it any more than he does. In some ways THE SWIMMER wrenches so deep down that it’s difficult to know what to say about the film since it’s all right there, a reminder of how much I might be as delusional as he is. And, messy and pieced together as it might be, kind of a masterwork because of how much it connects to those feelings. And I’m pulled back to it, searching for those answers that linger in the air. The very style of it becomes unpredictable and truly uncommon so it’s not a film about naturalism but about the fond memories we have, the embarrassment, the sadness and the moments we desperately wish we could go back to and make them right. Looking for reality there is a waste of time and thinking back on it, I wonder what the reality of some of my own past ever really was, anyway. All I know is, you can never swim back.
What Burt Lancaster does here is a staggeringly brave performance, unflinching in becoming Ned Merrill, literally just about naked in only that bathing suit which gives him nowhere to hide, no tricks to rely on, only the grace displayed each time he dives into the water. We see the man’s magnetism and how he can take command of a room, everyone hanging on his every word which makes where we can see it going that much more painful and he allows himself to collapse, his very presence gradually shrinking down until there’s almost nothing left as if the actor’s own spirit has left the frame. Much of it is a one man show but those faces popping up along the way add to that feeling of loneliness with the no nonsense vibe of Janice Rule matching him, as if unwilling to meet his gaze when he needs it the most. The best brief appearances throughout include Marge Champion whose “God, I hate Columbus,” early on could be the best line in the film, Diana Muldaur as an old acquaintance delighted to tell Ned that she’s now available, Bill Fiore & Jan Miner as a working class couple ready to let Ned know what they really think of him and Joan Rivers as that party guest in her first film role, unable to hide her interest in talking to this strange and possibly unique guy in just a bathing suit saying things she’s never heard until she realizes there’s nothing special about him at all.
Sure, we could ask where the hell Ned Merrill is coming from when he suddenly appears to dive into that first pool in the first scene but the answer doesn’t make any difference. It’s about the fear of running into those people, of what they might think of you, of those late night phone calls where they cut you down, the fear of losing someone to the wilds of Connecticut, all those insults we think are happening over in the next yard. Once several years ago after a screening of THE SWIMMER at the New Beverly I was walking up the aisle next to Clu Gulager (because it was the New Beverly and of course Clu Gulager was there) when he turned to me and said, “That was a strange movie.” I agreed and then he added, “But, you know, all movies are kind of strange.” I think about this all the time which I guess means I think about THE SWIMMER all the time too, stopping off at different houses each time in my memory. There are better films that I never say that about but there aren’t many that stay with me and want to be so protective of. In that sense, this 95 minute movie based on a 12-page short story set over a single afternoon becomes as much of an epic as I’ve ever seen, with all of the emotion that might be possible. And it’s one that I can never quite shake, as much as I keep trying never to admit the truth.