Film Reviews

The Swimmer Frank Perry

Rating - 6/10

Rooted in John Cheever's 1964 short story "The Swimmer," the collaborative effort of the same name released in 1968 by Eleanor and Frank Perry (who adapted the screenplay and directed the film, respectively) is a divisive cinematic experiment set in the opulent hills of Connecticut (instead of Cheever's original setting of Westchester County, New York) with a focus on the fit, blissfully optimistic and ostensibly well-liked Neddy Merrill (Burt Lancaster).  At a glance, a Hollywood veteran like Lancaster is an appropriate casting choice for Cheever's descriptions of a charming but aging suburbanite; however, the star's extravagant overacting methods prove undisciplined for genuine nuance.  Though Merrill is something of an enduring idealist, Lancaster, as if speaking upon a soap box, instills every line with too much gravity, trying to turn each scene into a magnificent spectacle, which detracts potential resonance, consistency, and hinders gradual descent into the literal and figurative darkness.  Although unsuccessful in its attempts to overcome that erratic tone, the Perrys' version of The Swimmer is an adequately expanded counterpart to the written word.  While the story rushes the main character's journey through the pools of his affluent friends and acquaintances "anxious not to get stuck in any conversation that would delay his voyage," the screenplay favors protracted scenes that expound a back-story more leisurely to fulfill running time requirements.  In turn, the Perrys find value in the investment of emotional and emblematic content with Ned's evocative meetings.

Perhaps augmented by the 1960s' revolutionary cinematic era, The Swimmer's weird meld of mundane melodrama and psychedelically wistful camerawork (superimposition, intense close-ups, sudden dissolves, heavy sun glare, out-of-focus shots, racing dolly shots, and naturalistic segues) are initially off-putting but suitable to Cheever's intended comingling of realism and surrealism.  Whereas Cheever is more implicit and self-censored, the film is actively able to embrace visual fantasy and manifesting delusions of its central character.  The Swimmer starts far from any kind of apparent fantasy, though, during a late summer's day where Neddy Merrill suddenly appears at the Westerhazy pool; after a surprise greeting, he impulsively decides to swim home through the valley of all his neighbors' pools to celebrate the day's glory.  As Cheever implies, Ned's journey is intended to be a sort of pilgrimage, "a discovery, a contribution to modern geography," to form a metaphorical river named after his wife Lucinda.  Before trekking to the Grahams' pool, Ned traces his route across the county by "taking a dogleg to the Southwest."  In Cheever's version, there are nearly twice as many houses, likely trimmed for the film to provide each of Ned's visits with more sentimentality.  For instance, the twenty-year-old student and former babysitter of the Merrill daughters, Julie Ann Hooper, expresses a naïve fascination with him in a lengthy memorable scene.  Exchanging portions of Cheever's own words, Julie becomes intrigued and temporarily joins Ned on his personal quest; the two then reminisce about their past before reaching an emotionally charged revelation.  Not only is the character of Julie is absent from the story, but these sorts of interactions are heavily downplayed to more bluntly showcase Merrill's disconnection amidst the other socialites.  Cheever's "Swimmer" is a solitary man's journey concerned with motion and the current that carries him along, while the film adaptation stops to lament on the way to its domestic destination.

Modern literature may dictate the The Swimmer's likeness to The Great Gatsby, but Cheever's original intention for his story was to modernly parallel to the ancient tale of Narcissus, a "narcissistic" Greek mythological character so entranced by his own reflection in the water, he fell into a paralysis and perished.  This premise was reportedly abandoned in the early stages of the author's conception, but it is interesting to examine how the essence of the Greek character can be viewed clearly in the cinematic allegorical adaptation.  Student of the World's Lost Books of Modern Civilization blog features a formal essay entitled "Narcissism and Society in 'The Swimmer'" that proposes color as one of the story's most significant thematic signifiers.  Green, in particular, is referenced often, as Ned remarks he's "a little green around the edges" just minutes before reflecting upon his boyhood summer camp's "transparent light green water."  Obviously, green is commonly associated with the credulous and immature, traits shared by Narcissus and Neddy (a nickname likely retained from his youth).  The color is additionally integral to the creation of environment in The Swimmer, one that is populated by various greenery and trees, youthfully familiar in the summer season.  As the film laps, though, it visually and emotionally resembles a winter of discontent.  Wearing just bathing shorts, Ned begins to shiver, appropriately juxtaposed with his more brusque and strained encounters.  In that sense, The Swimmer is a tragically cyclical exercise through temporal weather not only in correlation to nature but the character's life.  The film utilizes the portrayal of Ned Merrill through a conventionally handsome leading man, Burt Lancaster, to complement the emphasis on the obsession with beauty and outward appearances.  Ned's glee is a façade and his delusion an escape mechanism as a result of suppressed guilt; for him, fantasy represents more than an idealism.  Much like the character of Greek myth, fantasy becomes a fate-controlling, self-contained reality.  David L. Quaid's cinematography unusually captures the deterioration of truth from the opening sequence where the camera carefully zooms into Ned's contemplative eyes, a man consumed in his own world; sparkling tears and hazy clouds overlie and obscure the voices amongst him.  Ned not only lives but revels in disillusionment, as he is unaware of the damages inflicted and pain endured.  As a representation of a stunted suburban America, the 1960s story and film urge the embrace of self-awareness and emotional responsibility instead of imaginary lifestyle. While some of the life of The Swimmer is drained from an overeager Lancaster, there's certain an alluring social pessimism that pulls one along in its undercurrents.