The Swimmer: Not Waving But Drowning

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On a beautiful Autumn Sunday morning in upstate Connecticut, a middle-aged virile man, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the trees. Clad only in swimming trunks, he approaches old friends gathered around their back yard pool. Greeted warmly but with some surprise, he announces cheerily that he intends to swim home via a chain of similar pools in the well- to-do neighbourhood, and urges a young woman in the company to join him. So begins the 1968 allegorical curio, The Swimmer.

The tagline for the film read “When you talk about The Swimmer, do you talk about yourself?” Equally, it could be the same as the following year’s counterculture rallying point, Easy Rider: “A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere.” Just like that film’s Captain America and Billy, Ned, who we learn is / was an advertising executive, experiences disillusionment and disappointment, albeit from the comfortable cocktail set’s side of the street. During his Homeric odyssey, his sense of dissatisfaction, the troubling fracturing of the American Dream and breakdown of consumerism and changing social status, all predate Mad Men’s Don Draper’s lingering malaise.

The Swimmer was adapted in 1966 by Eleanor Perry from the short story of the same year by John Cheever, and directed (initially) by her husband, Frank Perry. Lancaster cited it as his favourite film. The original story begins:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night’. You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.”

It’s a tale of affluent suburban angst and hypocrisy, one of a sub-group of films such as The Ice Storm, Ordinary people, and American Beauty, albeit more deliberately oneiric. Why is Ned garbed in swimming trunks? Where did he spring from? Is he having a breakdown? Piece by piece, from a confident, brash and vigourous beginning, Ned’s comfortable life is exposed, his assumptions challenged. Although made in 1966, the release was delayed to 1968, so in a weird way, it reflects the pricking of America’s insular bubble by a dirty war it finds itself bogged down in, over in Vietnam.

The young woman who once baby-sat for him admits to an earlier crush, but freezes over Ned’s inappropriate, possibly lustful desire to protect and guide (control) her life.  A swimming lesson to a young boy in a drained pool symbolises the futility of striving in an empty existence, no matter how blinkered Ned’s self -belief is. Proud tales of his wife and children vary from pool to pool, and are challenged, by increasingly hostile old friends, neighbours and acquaintances. His daughters are, in his memory and reality, alternately younger, or teenage spoilt madams, frequently in minor trouble with the law. Ned’s confusion comes to a head when he espies a hot dog wagon he bought the girls, now purchased by the latest poolside owner in a white elephant sale. Ned can’t comprehend the stripping away of his carefully organised existence.

A poolside meeting with an old mistress, Shirley Abbott, ends badly, with hurt recriminations. Ned flirts clumsily with another young woman (a young Joan Rivers), looking for an escape from the cocktail circuit of hell. By this point, Sydney Pollack took over directing, after star and original director parted over “creative differences”. Rivers complained Lancaster trimmed her lines to make her more needy, and he more sympathetic.

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As the day draws to a close and storm clouds gather, the earlier proud swimmer is now a limping, haunted and shamed fool, his attire now reflecting the final stripping away of identity and social status. Chased from a public pool by angry store owners and restauranteurs, disabusing him of foolish notions about his snobbish wife and demanding recompense over unpaid bills, he finally makes it to his destination. But the house on the hill has a rusted gate, the tennis court is weed strewn, and the gutters hang loose. Ned breaks down and weeps by the locked front door of his long deserted home. What happened to The American Dream? You’re looking at it.

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UPDATE: Matt Zoller Seitz, film and T.V critic for Vulture, New York Magazine, editor of RogerEbert.Com, and author of Mad Men Carousel, has scheduled a Mad Men Weekend of four films (amongst many!) that inspired the T.V show, including The Swimmer. He’s done video essays for all four, and we include his analysis of The Swimmer below.


Originally posted 2013-02-10 12:19:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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