Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Swimmer (1968) with Burt Lancaster

Better late than never, right?

In my film class on Wednesday, we watched Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. The film was released in 1968, during a time period that is generally considered a pretty damn big deal in cinema. (What with, The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, etc., etc.)

Unfortunately, it didn't have quite the staying power as those films, because, uh, has anyone even heard of this film? I certainly haven't.

The film is based on a short story by John Cheever, also called "The Swimmer," also which I've never heard of. A suburban man has the invigorating idea to swim home, not through one continuous body of water, but by pool-hopping through his affluent neighbors' yards. He names the waterway "River Lucinda," in honor of his wife. And without giving away too much plot, Neddy Merrill's pool-hopping represents more than just a frivoulous pastime, more of a passage through time to self-awareness.

Sounds heady, hmm?

Several reviews I read complained about how a film could never capture Cheever's subtle detailing. In the short story, Neddy swims from house to house, meeting neighbor after neighbor, with very little dialogue to illuminate their relationships. He's constantly moving. And before you know it, you stand before Neddy's final destination. In this way, the story's flow is not unlike a rushing river, carrying you along tirelessly without a chance to stop and see what's really going on upon the shore.

In the story, time changes with little details like late-blooming flowers, and the changing reception given to Neddy by his friends along the way. However, being as how I have no allegiance to Cheever the author, I didn't find these subtleties to be completely lost in the film. But as Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review in 1968, the film is forced to literalize much of the short story's haunting surrealism, for better or worse.
Along this vein, the film added two characters (a former baby sitter and a lonely boy), which I think helped to tie Neddy to his youth. But I admit that the extended sequence with his former lover (only a brief encounter in the story) is pathetically elaborate.

Click here for the full New York Times review. (APPAREntly, Burt Lancaster was miscast because his physique was kickin', but his skin failed to have "youthful texture." Oh, and he wasn't vulnerable enough. Bah.)

It's all a shame, really, about the reception, because this is definitely my type of film. It's risky, and it's interpretative, and, yeah, that means sometimes it fails. But sometimes it's pretty cool. It's very stylized, with lots of extreme closeups of Burt's blue eyes (and old skin), and hazy dream-like sequences. It reminds me of some great Iranian cinema I've come across: not afraid to meander along the way to the film's conclusion.

If you're looking for something a little more experimental, watch this film.
If you've enjoyed Iranian films like The Runner, watch this film.
If you want to watch Burt Lancaster in swim trunks for 95 minutes, watch this film.

Photo Credit: from this film review

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