The Swimmer (1968) Directed by Frank Perry
Perceptions of how I think I am seen by other people is something I don't think about too much. We all want to be thought of in a good light. I don't send around a questionnaire asking "Am I a good egg?" to friends and acquaintances. Maybe I should to get a better understanding of what my friends really think of me. The like button on Facebook is probably the closest we get to some kind of consensus on our musings and popularity amongst our friends. But what if you're like Ned Merrill in The Swimmer? What if you are blighted by something out of your control, the loss of a job, some unsavory episode or misfortune, which means people talk about you without you knowing, and formulate an opinion of yourself that you don't quite see.
The Swimmer is one of those films where you wonder how this picture got green-lit, so strange is the topic. After being away for awhile (we don't really know where), Ned appears at some old friends poolside. After realizing that there are swimming pools in every home across the rich Connecticut suburb valley where he lives, Ned decides to swim home. Along the way, pool by pool, he meets old friends, neighbors, lovers and enemies, who are all initially pleased if a little wary to see him. But as Ned's journey progresses, some uncomfortable truth about himself comes to pass.
Burt Lancaster plays Ned. Burt spends the whole movie in his swimming trunks. What a body for a then 55 year old Lancaster. I always think Burt has the most incredibly wide shoulders (he started his career as an acrobat in the circus). It's easy to think of Burt as this über-macho leading man of the 1950's and 1960's cinema. But then think of the quality pictures Lancaster made: From Here To Eternity, The Birdman Of Alcatraz, The Sweet Smell of Success, Seven Days In May, The Leopard and Atlantic City amongst many others. You realize that Lancaster was one of the great screen actors, even though there is no fuss surrounding him like Brando or Nicholson. The Swimmer is a cult favorite nowadays hiding one of Lancaster's best roles. Watching his journey unravel is fascinating.
Some part of me is always missing The Strand book store on the corner of 12th street and Broadway (Manhattan). In a dream life, I would live only a walking distance from there. Physically, the distance to that scenario is huge at this moment. Right now I am reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and it makes me long for a past I never had. What is disturbing to realize in life, is how the same ingredients can lead to such different results. This is true in cooking but it is also true with people. Is it a question of luck, magic, timing, location, destiny or something even more flimsy and undefinable?
The Swimmer portrays a lost man in the middle of his disconnection from what used to define him. I have not seen many films so fully dedicated to an episode like this without the need to explain how he got there or where he will end up. It is disturbing to see the man's nakedness and vulnerability in front of his old neighbors who do not understand why he is back – their reactions range between pretending everything is normal to baffled expressions of anger. His idea 'to swim home' through all the pools in the neighboring houses appears peculiar but inventive at first, but slowly the audience begins to see the madness of the effort. At the present the swimmer does not remember, or he has repressed, the traumatic events in his resent past which have changed the course of his life.
I guess what I am trying to say with the help of The Swimmer and Patti Smith is that me ending up as a regular customer of The Strand is as likely as it is unlikely. The future will be a chain of events somewhat influenced by my aspirations but also defined by circumstance – most likely I will be both the swimmer and some woman in the sun chair by the pool with a drink in her hand. This sense of not knowing while constantly intrigued is crucial for life.