Psychedelic film criticism for the woefully unprepared

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Quixote Ugly: THE SWIMMER

"He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools."
-- The Swimmer, John Cheever

Of all the great white male midlife crisis epics, outside of TV's MAD MEN, who can beat the Burt Lancaster-starred adaptation of John Cheever's THE SWIMMER (1968)? What kind of 'meet' competition is there even to lap against? The recent Time magazine cover lauding Jonathan Franzen as the literary canon's next great white hope sent a shock through the up and coming, young, brilliant and angry writing community at Pratt, as yet another middle-aged higher-educated white male of means got noticed writing about mid-life crises, college tenure boondogles, student affairs, car accidents that leave multi-generational ripples across sprawling summer cottage-owning families, replete with colorful characters and intellectual dialogue that makes everyone right down to the precocious daughter sound like the same pithy writer in love with his own voice. I'm guessing on all this, of course. Never read it, whatever it is he wrote. But the writing community at Pratt was nonplussed and that's enough for me. It's just, they said, Time grasping at the last straw in the arsenal for keeping awake their dwindling upper middle class white male readership (1). The lionizing search for the next great white hope, the Norman Mailer, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or John Cheever is not unlike the drowning grasp of The Swimmer himself! Wait, is that why I'm writing about it? Dude, I've made my peace with all the aforementioned tenets of WASPy life. Not that I'd ever be caught sober in a country club again, unless it was for a memorial service, preferably mine own. (2)

What's great about the 1968 adaptation of Cheever's THE SWIMMER, then, is how morbidly aware it is of the absurdity of such great white drunk male lionization. Where the lionizers massage each other's egos and repackage bawdy limericks as great literature, SWIMMER reaches into the floater's open chest wound for the nasty heart of white male 'pride of ownership' and finds the rotting crotch is all that's left. This particular crotch wrings especially true after first going through a few episodes of MAD MEN: Don Draper and the mourning of all the sexism, racism, high-functioning alcoholism, and other -isms that we're technically 'glad' are gone-- but man, we've been so busy this decade cleaning things up--Times Square, indoor smoking, workplace sexual harassment, public dancing (forbidden in NYC), outdoor smoking, racial profiling, equal rights--that we've forgotten what we've lost: a middle-aged Burt Lancaster, loping over hurtles to impress some Dolores Haze he met a mere two pools ago.

What happened? According to one disgruntled ex-friend: "You got tossed out of your golden playpen, that's what happened." As an entitled sexist white male myself, born in 1967, I grew up hearing racist, sexist and Polish jokes over cocktails, sitting on the couch beside the adults in awe, rushing to refill their drinks on request, blending the whiskey sour mix, smelling the sweet sugar sweat of hungover adults on Sunday mornings during the Dunkin Donuts run, copping sips at all hours. It's built into me, along with second-hand smoke. These things forged this site, and though I know it's all wrong I smoke nonetheless, and have an attitude of entitlement that is so seldom effective I consider my maintaining it a form of Quixote-ugly heroism. So when I see Burt in THE SWIMMER gradually sink into the deep end of illusion I weep, for me. The scene of his humiliation at the hands of the filthy ethnic grocers at the public pool especially wrankles. This is the ultimate in both comeuppance and validation of the class system the film is watching die. When the playing field is equal, the lowest common denominator always rules. Once you let the poor people in, your pool is officially 'public' i.e. packed and full of kiddie urine, a slum, in sum. On the other hand, maybe it's you who was the slum the whole time: "Ya wanna know what your kids thought of ya, Mr. Merrill?" the grocer says. "They thought you were a big joke!" Exemplifying the nouveu riche (the type who have to tell you how much everything cost), they're like devouring birds who wolf down our Burt like one of Sebastian's baby turtles.

Standing forth from the fray and creating the film's most touching scene is Joan Rivers, playing just a guest covering her bad skin with more makeup at the ethnic ugly new money afternoon bash. She sees--just for a minute--a chance at something new and exciting by driving him off to a quick one. But before she can find her car keys it passes. Everyone Burt Lancaster meets before her is either oblivious or resentful but Joan is just lonesome and hung over, and her sad but witty resilience creates a small oasis of realness in the downward spiral, like if Burt wanted he could just scram out of there, swipe a fifth of vodka from the bar cart on their way out of the party, hop in her BMW back down the river to her East 82nd street apartment and shack up for the rest of the weekend, just drinking, screwing (as they called it then) and watching old movies on the late late show... And he'd never have to get his well-deserved comeuppance. It's easy! I've done it myself, and regretted it only thrice! Burt, forget about that little blonde and go where the flavor is!

And that's my advice in a nutshell to all future Swimmers: Never go back to your wife, the kids, the house. Never get out of the goddamned pool. There's no such thing as ugly women, only sober men. So grab the first boat that comes along, as long as she's just hot enough you don't have to hide in it, but not too hot she catches the eye of other men. Absolutely goddamned right. Burt in THE SWIMMER doesn't get out of the boat, yet it still sails without him. The age of the great white sharky novel sinks down to the bottom as he pounds the iron doors of his golden playpen like its the locked steerage gate on the Titanic. His future is all drank up and pissed out into the rose bushes. His key don't fit that lock on his door. Another mule has long ago kicked down his stall.

Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER is like the last conservative helicopter out of hippie-swarmed Saigon. Burt swims backwards through the evacuees like a sperm whale who alone realizes there's a prophylactic net ahead. But there's no going back, oh Connecticut Paragon! Your day of slapping polyester asses and drinking the world into a hazy welcome mat is over. Swim to the sea, Cheever of Men, if it will have you. Just know there's lots of other sharks fighting over every last late-night co-ed spring breaker, and for far too long you've coasted in a sea of spoon-fed chum. Are your teeth sharp? Is your skin hard? Is your mouth a little weak? Are you smart? Or would you rather be a duck? Then quack!

1. My dad's subscribed to TIME all my life. In the words of Allen Ginsberg, I read it every week, especially Richard Corliss' film reviews, and carbonizing my prepubescent hormones via its pictures of Cheryl Tiegs and Charlie's Angels - back in the days before I knew what sex was or that my arousal was 'dirty'. I hate it but it's a part of me, that's a fact. Nowadays I'm too leftist to tolerate its petit-bourgeois slantiness and Effexor has left me a happy eunuch! 
2. Postscript - it turned out to be my mom's - Kenmure CC, SC - 2/15 - RIP Nancy Kuersten xoxxox

1 comment:

  1. I saw THE SWIMMER when I was a kid on the 4:30 movie here in NY and it blew me away---such a different film. Great blog.


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