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"The Swimmer", Dir: Frank Perry, 1968




I first watched Frank Perry's 1968 film "The Swimmer" some time in the late 70's or mid-80's in a TV broadcast and have only a dim memory of it as being about a man, "Ned Merrill" (Burt Lancaster) who decides, rather randomly, to get to his home by swimming across the pools of his neighbours, in the course of which we are witness to a series of vignettes as he interacts with each of them.


It felt like a quintessentially American, and specifically Los Angeles, film, since the the idea of everyone having a swimming pool could only have come from an America epitomised by L.A, though in fact, the film did not use L.A as a location and its many adjoining properties with pools, preferring instead to locate it in Westport, Connecticut to take advantage of the fact that the properties seen in the film are separated by long stretches of woodland - a very non-L.A feature it seemed, though since then I've come to realise that Los Angeles has its own areas of countryside, such as in the Hollywood Hills.


Without that knowledge I had always thought that it was based in L.A and it helped contribute to my mental picture of the location before actually visiting it for the first time in the early 1980's.


The film is available on Criterion Channel and so I decided to watch it again since I remember enjoying it.


One thing became clear as I watched it, which is that the many layers of the film completely escaped me in the first viewing, not least the fact that it is not set in Los Angeles but also that each pool is separated by large areas of woodland and are not immediately adjacent to each other - something that is implied in the classic 1990's "Levis" jeans commercial (Dir: Tarsem Singh) that was knowingly inspired by the film and that necessarily omits any of the subtext of the film in favour of a glossily art directed piece that has an air of homo-eroticism about it, one detail it does perhaps share with its inspiration in Lancaster's ripped physique, which is very much on show.


Reviews of the film at the time of its release were divided between those who were completely bewildered by the plot or that described it as a "surrealist" masterpiece, ie it had more in common with a dream in its use of visual symbolism.


There's some truth in the view that it's dreamlike and may explain why many of its subtleties and subtexts eluded me on a first viewing - perhaps I fell asleep whilst watching it or was just lacking in life experience to understand what it was about. The publicity of the film in the form of posters reveal one possible interpretation via the tagline "...will the film talk about yourself?"


On this second viewing a great deal became clearer and tonally the film is very much like something out of a "Twilight Zone" episode written by Rod Serling, or the stories of O.Henry or Ray Bradbury - as meditations on the human soul and representing a style of storytelling that even by 1968 had begun to fall out of fashion for a cinema film, instead to find a home on the small screen.


The opening segments of the film depict the world of middle class, wealthy white America enjoying life in the sunlit uplands of endless blue skies and days spent lounging around pools sipping cocktails, and into this scenario wanders Merrill, stripped to his shorts and ready for a cooling dip. He reflects on his good fortune and the beauty of nature that surrounds him, and his friends, both male and female, all seem to love him in equal measure.


His home, it is revealed, is actually far away in the distance at the top of a wooded hill overlooking his neighbours, who it turn are separated by dense stretches of woodland, and he traces a path from his initial location all the way back home via the swimming pools of these 'neighbours", that he describes as a "river", seeing the trip as a challenge since although well into middle age, he is still very fit and youthful, something remarked upon by his married and settled old friends who have slightly gone to seed.


The film uses an interesting visual device to telescope his journey, but only once, which is to see him enter one pool and exit from another in a different location to reveal the next vignette.


In the course of his pool to pool journey he meets the young daughter of a neighbour, now a bubbly and attractive young woman, and convinces her to join him in his adventure, to which she agrees. During an interlude in the forest between pools she reveals that when she was a child she had a crush on Merrill and stole one of his shirts so that she could imagine herself close to him. He is flattered and this leads to him making an awkward pass at her that causes her to flee back home.


The sequence above is preceded by the first of a series of visual metaphors in a film loaded with such metaphors, if you choose to interpret them that way, in an extended sequence of shots of Merrill and the girl frolicking in a horse paddock and leaping in slow-motion over horse-jumps that is used in part to suggest Merrill's carefree attitude to life.


This first encounter sows a seed of doubt in Merrill's mind as to his intentions but he sees himself as a honourable man, husband and father of 2 young daughters, but for whom the notion of boundaries is ambiguous as expressed in his desire to swim in his neighbours pools. This idea is further reinforced during a moment of reflection where the camera zooms into an extreme close-up of his eye as he recalls happy moments of his youth and where we see a horse in a paddock. Later he encounters the horse in the paddock and races it, enjoying the exhilaration, a sequence that becomes another metaphor since the horse, despite appearing to be free, is enclosed by the paddock.


The film's plot covers several themes, such as conformity, freedom and the interpretation of freedom, absolution and atonement and lost youth that challenge Merrill's credo that he expresses to a small boy who he encounters at the next neighbours drained pool, which is that one should never aspire to be part of a team or a group, but should know oneself and be free to make choices outside of the imposed norms of society or peer group.


As the film progresses and Merrill moves from pool to pool, the tone gradually becomes darker as his interactions with his neighbours become progressively less friendly, revealing home truths that he appears to be in denial of and that peel back the layers of his character hidden by an almost naive sunny optimism.


When he arrives at the pool of an old flame her reaction is frosty and we discover that he was something of a local lothario, or "suburban stud" as she calls him during a furious row, and his insistence that he wants to get home to his dear wife and daughters is met with incredulity. Through her and others reactions we discover that Merrill seems to be deluding himself about his domestic situation but we are never sure exactly what this is.


The film treats us to some interesting and unexpected details, such as when the young woman he meets early in the film confesses that she found her boyfriend via computer dating - Merrill's reaction is one of wonder and the suggestion is that he belongs to another generation out of step with that of the young woman, despite his youthful looks, besides also putting into perspective the phenomena of dating apps for a contemporary audience.


When he arrives at the opulent home of a pair of wealthy nudists he hitches a ride in their Rolls Royce that is driven by their black chauffeur. In a brief conversation with the reticent chauffeur, Merrill mentions his predecessor, also black we are to assume, and mentions his baritone voice. The chauffeurs' frosty response to this suggests that to Merrill, all black people are of a kind, even if he never intended to offend.


There is no doubt in my mind that the film makes a subtle statement about the position of black people in American society at the time - they are servants, if visible, in a predominantly white and affluent landscape.


Without wishing to spoil the conclusion of "The Swimmer", the film plays out as a sort of morality play while placing Lancaster's genial and likeable character centre stage as a modern everyman, perhaps without visible faults, something he articulates to "Joan" (Joan Rivers in a rare non-comedy film appearance) at a pool party he gatecrashes by saying that he is a man who has noble intentions - a view that runs contrary to that of his neighbours, who judge him harshly for reasons that are revealed by superficially trivial anecdotes.


Metaphorically, you can view the succession of pools as a means of cleansing himself of the shadows of a past life, his chosen romantic impression of the chain of pools as a "river" that brings to mind the term " to go with the flow", except that in reality it isn't a river at all and Merrill's nature is to do the opposite, to not recognise boundaries nor to conform to societal norms as a personal philosophy of life.


There is also the notion that, like a pilgrimage, Merrill, the pilgrim, must undergo various trials before arriving at a destination, a karmic journey of the soul to absolve himself of past indiscretions that he feels are trivial in daily life but for which there is an inevitable price of some sort to pay, with the succession of pools / water as symbolic of purification.


By 1968, the year of the film's release, many of the philosophical underpinnings of the film may have escaped the audiences of the time since it seems to be rooted in the counter-culture of an earlier era where there was a fascination with spiritualism and rebellion against the dull conformity of post-war America and its obsession with materialism.


Merrill is nostalgic for his happy pre-war childhood, where everything was simpler and perhaps less influenced by the rising consumer society of the 50's and 60's but he is ultimately mocked for being out of step and for belonging to an older generation eager to keep ageing at bay and for existing in a state of denial about it.


To sum up, "The Swimmer" is a kind of soul-journey that plays out like a dream and where characters from Merrill's past drift in and out to reveal truths about him and that may explain why it has been described as surrealistic and as such is a fascinating and absorbing oddity that is definitely worth watching.


The film was re-released in a restored version in 1990's under the "Grindhouse Releasing" label- *no connection to Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez.


"The Swimmer", Dir Frank Perry, 1968

The Criterion Channel.


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