Movie Recommendation- The Swimmer
THE SWIMMER (1968)
The Swimmer is an imperfect movie, but one that looms large in my memory, as it likely does for anyone who, like me, wandered into the film expecting a tepid 1960s literary adaptation and walked out chilled to their very core. Like a feature-length “Twilight Zone” episode by way of Luis Buñuel, Swimmer is a surreal, lyrical, and unexpectedly disturbing adaptation of John Cheever’s famed 1964 short story. An excellent Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merrill, a fit, upbeat upper-middle-class WASP who decides, one idyllic summer day, to swim home across the county by way of his suburban neighbors’ backyard swimming pools. More of Ned’s tragic—though never explicitly clarified—backstory is revealed with each new neighbor he encounters, and obvious metaphors about the inherant complacency of the bourgeois are apparent, but not overwhelming. Episodic by nature, The Swimmer has major consistency issues, and a few of the film’s vignettes are outright duds. Some of The Swimmer’s shoddy quality control can be blamed on the film’s tumultuous production. When original (and credited) director Frank Perry quit partway through filming, a young Sydney Pollack stepped in to helm what is, frankly, the film’s worst segment: an interminable, Soviet death march of a scene between Ned and his former mistress. Pollack’s attempt to fill in more of Ned’s backstory threatens to spoil the rest of the film’s haunting opacity; The Swimmer works best when it’s operating on the level of allegory, not melodrama. Also among the films demerits are multiple hippy-dippy “running-through-fields-of-sunflowers” montages scored to peppy, flute-heavy lite jazz. Thank you, 1968. Needless to say, to any sane contemporary audience these scenes are brutal found objects of unintentional comedy. And if I were the kind of person who used the word “gay” as a pejorative, I might be tempted to describe the sight of effervescent quinquagenarian Lancaster’s lithe amber torso frolicking through the high grass as “the gayest thing ever.” But since I’m not, the thought is doomed to remain uncommunicated. Flaws aside, The Swimmer is a haunting piece of filmmaking, and one of the earliest American films to suggest that there may be something fundamentally rotten at the heart of our national character; that the Emptiness sometimes sneaks at once slowly and suddenly, like a vine snaking over a rusty gatehandle.