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2003.11.22

The Psychogeographer's Film Guide

By Holly Tavel
Neuroscape Editor

In what may (or may not, basically depending on my mood) become a regular feature of Neuroscape, Ill look at films which should be (says me) in every psychogeographers video collection. The first installment looks at a truly weird, obscure little gem which takes us on a surreal journey through the bucolic suburban wasteland of Westchester county, mid-life-crisis style.

The Swimmer (1968, Dir. Frank Perry)
From the opening scene, in which a bare-chested Burt Lancaster emerges from a pastorale of serene wildlife and wafting sunlight and, in a running dive, penetrates the placid blue of a swimming pool at the peak of a Marvin Hamlisch symphonic crescendo, I'm hooked. A late-sixties curio awash with the heady surrealism so characteristic of that era, it veers unsteadily between Hollywood overstatement (the aforementioned Hamlisch score) and arty abstraction most evident in the abundance of weird, ponderous dialogue: "Beautiful--like a dream city from the bow of a ship..."; "the ash tree...the last to get its leaves...and then first to lose them", &c. The scenes of late-summer woods, sunlight filtering through patchwork leaves, are straight off those 500-piece puzzle boxes that sat collecting dust in your basement, and there's a ten-minute sequence of soft-focus montage that today evokes nothing so much as an extended seventies feminine hygiene commercial.

The plot, based on John Cheever's celebrated short story, concerns the mid-life crisis of one Ned Merrill, the quintessential man in the gray flannel suit, expressed in his spontaneous decision, on a hungover Sunday, to swim the eight miles to his home via the connecting chain of his wealthy neighbors' swimming pools. Oh, Ned, you old so-and-so, you can hear the hung-over Westerhazys thinking as they sip the hair of the dog poolside and playfully chide his impetuous, little-kid bravado. As Ned endeavors to swim a river of pools -- the Lucinda river, he names it, after his conspicuously absent wife-- the film turns episodic. He frolics across rolling countryside, racing a horse, barefoot and naked except for shiny black swim trunks, exuding manly-man grace and athleticism gone to ruin. Neighbors slap him on the back and wonder where in the sam hill he's been keeping himself. A former babysitter, the picture of dewy innocence, comes along for part of the ride, and reveals her preteen crush on him. The scene's layered abstraction heightens what we've already come to suspect: his daydream is no longer the stuff of summer reverie, but of amnesiac delusion. At big blowout #2 (people falling into the pool with their clothes on, everyone winking at everyone else's wives, Pucci and golf shirts in abundance) party crasher Ned is clearly unwelcome; unpleasantness transpires. His triumphant stride becomes a limp, he deteriorates before our eyes. Each pool becomes a touchstone in Ned's transformation from conquering hero of the bourgeois party-set to washed-up loser. Each one a reminder of squandered opportunity, each belonging to another life with another set of rules and players that seem completely unconnected with Ned yet intrinsically bound to him. One of the film's strangest scenes comes when Ned encounters a forlorn little boy sitting (and playing a flute: my, how times change) on the edge of an empty, leaf-strewn pool. Far from acknowleding the drained pool as an insurmountable obstacle in his lighthearted-jaunt-turned-obsessive-quest, he (with the young boy in tow) simply goes through the motions, literally, of swimming it; the two breast- and backstroke the air the length of the pool and back. Ned: "If you believe it, then it's true for you." Indeed.

The swimming-pool-as-metaphor featured heavily in another film The Swimmer evokes in its portrayal of the empiness of upper-middle-class suburbia: The Graduate. The river of pools in The Swimmer alludes not only to Ned's self-immersion but his alcoholism (a fact much more evident in Cheevers story). From a psychogeographic view, Ned's decision to take the odd way home is tantamount to the discovery of a secret passageway cutting clear through the center of his life, affording glimpses of the hidden vistas not only in his life but in the landscape around him. The minute he opens this magic door, he unleashes the forces of poetry and memory. Once he has consented to this point of view, there's no turning back; he has to continue, no matter what.




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