Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Movies Before 1975


 

Poor Rick Rojas. A couple of weeks ago he was just a reporter for the New York Times. Then he made the mistake of going on to Twitter to trash CITIZEN KANE. By itself, taking a shot at the Orson Welles classic isn't really such a big deal, of course. Ever since it was enshrined as "The Greatest Movie of All Time" by cinephiles back in the 60s and 70s, it's been fair game for iconoclasts and contrarians. But Rojas went on to say that he had a policy of not watching any movie made before 1975. Reaction, as it often is on Twitter, was swift, fierce, and completely out of proportion. Even TCM dunked on this guy. And keep in mind, Rojas isn't even a film critic. He's just a dude who tweeted out something goofy.

What do I think about the goofy thing he tweeted? Well, I have a few thoughts.

1. Old movies are my life. I mean, they really, really are. I honestly can't imagine life without Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Olivia de Havilland, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Lizabeth Scott, Robert Mitchum, Jean Arthur... I could keep listing famous names, but you get the point. 

2. But no one is obligated to like anything. You're not obligated to like an Orson Welles movie. And I'm obsessed with Orson Welles. Orson Welles isn't just my favorite filmmaker, I think he's my favorite subject. But because of that, because of the twenty-something books I've read about Orson Welles, and the thousands of words I've written about Orson Welles, I can tell you that he would have been horrified by the idea that one of his films had become so calcified in consensus that it become above rebuke. No one is obligated to like anything. 

3. Why 1975? I'm a big fan of 1975 because I was born that year. Big fan. But even if you're the kind of person who thinks you don't like movies from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, why dismiss the first half of the 70s? I mean, THE GODFATHER was released in 1972, and GODFATHER II was released in 74. Those are pretty good flicks... You know what was released in 1990? GODFATHER III.

4. But I'm assuming 1975 was an arbitrary date. Again, we're talking about a random tweet by a guy who probably didn't anticipate the shitstorm of movie geek outrage he was unleashing with his hot take. So why does it matter? Well, it doesn't actually matter, of course. But...

5. This IS part of a larger discussion about movies. No one knows what the future of movies looks like. Even pre-Covid the movie business was experiencing massive shifts and facing major challenges. But the history of film is there for all of us. Human beings have been making movies all over the world for well over a hundred years. There is so much to experience. Which isn't to say that it's for everyone. Again, no one is obligated to like anything. But watching an old movie can be a fascinating experience precisely because they're made in a style that isn't the current vogue. They contain different ways of telling stories, featuring different acting styles, and are photographed in ways that simply don't exist anymore, even when modern day filmmakers do their best to imitate the old studio look. Nothing looks like CASABLANCA. It's a foreign object. (And this is to say nothing of silent movies, which play like artifacts from another planet.)

I think of classic movies like classical music. Not everyone likes Beethoven. And, hey, you don't have to. No one's obligated to like anything. But, man, Beethoven is pretty amazing. 

And so, by the way, was Orson Welles. 

P.S. It's worth adding that when we have these kinds of discussions in the West we tend to have a Hollywood-centric view of things. Thus, the failures and sins of classic American films in terms of representation (both in the general omission of people of color both in front of and behind the camera much of the time, and in the commission of racist, sexist, homophobic stereotypes) tend to overshadow an important point: "classic cinema" is world cinema. So when we talk about movies made before 1975, we're also talking about the work of African and Asian filmmakers, we're talking about the work of women around the world, and we're talking about the history of queer cinema, a legacy that extends back to the silent era. The world of pre-75 cinema is a world that is rich and large and virtually inexhaustible. Go get you some.  


Friday, January 1, 2021

Favorite Silent Films


Above: Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), could there be a more appropriate film for 2020?

 In the unrelenting hellscape that was 2020, we all had to seek our comfort where we could find it. One place I've been very happy lately is in the world of silent film. I've always liked the silents, but over the last year or so I've been watching more and more artifacts from the strange and mysterious world of the pre-sound era. Sadly, most movies from the silent era are lost (anywhere from 80% to 85% most estimates say), yet what remains is a rich treasure trove and much of it is available online. YouTube in particular is a good source of silent film, oftentimes with new kinds of musical accompaniment.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. 7TH HEAVEN (1927)- Director Frank Borzage's masterpiece is, simply put, one of the most beautiful movies ever made, a sweet and touching romance with Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. This one always makes me cry. 

2. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)- They call Victor Sjostrom the father of Swedish cinema. Watch this moving epic of sin and redemption and see what that means. The films of Ingmar Bergman are unthinkable without something like THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE paving the way.

3. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)- Movies don't get much more intense than this harrowing recreation of the trial and execution of Jeanne D'Arc. One of Dreyer's signature films and certainly one of the most fascinating films about religion ever made. (Is it a testament of faith? A condemnation of fanaticism? Both?) The central performance by Renee Falconetti is as unsettling as any ever put on film. 

4. HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)- How odd that one of the darkest Hollywood movies of the silent era (maybe THE darkest, come to think of it) was made at MGM. But then again it was directed by Victor Sjostrom during his brief time working in the US. The story of a heartbroken man (Lon Chaney) who takes a job as a circus clown whose masochistic gimmick is that he gets repeatedly and viscously slapped and heckled by the audience, it is as strange and disturbing as it sounds.

5. GREED (1924)-Fun fact, Frank Norris's 1899 MCTEAGE is the novel that I've read the most times. Erich von Stroheim famously tried to put all of the book on screen, resulting in a 10 hour epic called GREED. Chopped down to a more manageable running time by MGM (MGM again!), it's the story of money and murder, and, of course, greed. The climax in Death Valley is an unforgettable vision of hell on earth, a damnation sought and earned by simpleminded dentist turned killer McTeague (Gibson Gowland).

6. INTOLERANCE (1916)- DW Griffith's epic ain't for everyone, but I genuinely love this film. It's 3 1/2 hours long with four intercut storylines told across different time periods, all on the theme of "love's struggle throughout the ages." It is entirely possible that this 104-year old film might be the most artistically ambitious movie you've ever seen.

7. SUNRISE (1927)- A film as beautiful as 7TH HEAVEN and, in its way, as daring as GREED or INTOLERANCE, this is FW Murnau's grand tale of love and temptation. George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor (who ran back and forth between this and 7TH HEAVEN) and Margaret Livingston comprise the greatest love triangle in silent film.

8. THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI (1920)- I mean, what can you say about Robert Wiene's horror classic? It didn't singlehandedly invent German Expressionism, but it is undeniably the consummate example of it. The sets--twisted, slanted, angular, unreal yet real--are as important as the story of insanity and murder itself.

9. STEAMBOAT BILL JR (1928)- There aren't a lot of comedies on this list, in part because I tend to think that comedy is over represented in considerations of silent film. (There are a lot of reasons for that, chief among them being the relative ease with which slapstick translates across cultures and time periods. A man falling on his ass is pretty much funny to everyone.) Here's my favorite silent comedy. There are other Buster Keaton films that get more attention, but this one makes me laugh the most and also contains his greatest death-defying gag, wherein he drops the front of house on himself.

10. IN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928)- To sort of borrow what I said above about CALIGARI, this film didn't invent Surrealism but remains its primary cinematic artifact. The work of filmmaker Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali is a 21-minute drug trip of arresting imagery. Nearly a hundred years later, its impact has been somewhat dulled as Surrealism has been absorbed by more of the mainstream, but the film itself remains fascinating. As with CALIGARI, part of the appeal is the fact that it's both physically palpable and wholly unhinged from our waking world. 

There are a lot of big classics and important figures I've left off this list (no PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or NOSFERATU? no Charlie Chaplin or Fritz Lang?), but the list isn't intended to be either definitive or objective. This is just what rocks my boat the most.

One film I'd like to mention is one I'm still watching. LES VAMPIRES (1915-1916) is a ten-episode French crime serial about a gang of outlaws led by a sexy femme fatale named Irma Vep (played by the actress Musidora). I'm on episode seven, and I'm having a blast. It's funny to see how this serial influenced, oh just about every crime movie you've ever seen. It's got it all: severed heads stashed in boxes, rooftop escapes by costumed figures, poisoned rings, poisoned pens, faked deaths, real deaths, evil hypnotists, chloroform, gun fights, swapped identities, and a sequence where thieves pump gas into a ritzy meeting of swells that reminded me of similar scenes in both Tim Burton's BATMAN and Christopher Nolan's TENET. Filmmaker Louis Feuillade made LES VAMPIRES as the central film in a trilogy of crime epics, between FANTOMAS (1913-1914) and JUDEX (1916). I haven't seen those yet, so I guess I know what I'll be doing as I'm heading into 2021.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Symphony of American Paranoia: JFK (1991)


 Can a film fail to achieve its stated goals and still be considered good--even great? On the basis of Oliver Stone's JFK, the answer is yes. Stone wanted his movie to implicate the Dallas police, the mafia, the FBI, the CIA, the military-industrial complex, and the White House, up to and including Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, in a massive conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy. Stone points a lot of fingers, often in different directions at the same time, without making a coherent argument for his theory. Yet the film itself is a fine piece of filmmaking, a passionate mystery told on a grand scale. It's also something else Stone didn't really intend, a masterpiece of American paranoia. 

Stepping away from Stone's film for a moment: based on all the available evidence, the only reasonable conclusion is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Every serious study of the case seems to lead to this conclusion. I say "seems" because I'm not positioning myself as an expert. In terms of specifics, I base my opinion mainly on Gerald Posner's 1993 study Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, a book that makes a thoroughly convincing case for Oswald's guilt by following the physical evidence, sticking as much as possible to primary sources, and detailing the short, troubled life of Lee Harvey Oswald himself.

Stone's film, by contrast, is a whirlwind of hearsay, hunches, slanders, speculations, conflations, obfuscations, and outright fantasies. It is a deeply dishonest film from start to finish. As a piece of historical fiction, it is 95% fiction. 

It is also (deep breath): sharply directed, wonderfully acted, imaginatively written, and brilliantly edited. As a piece of filmmaking, it is a triumph. 

So where does that leave us? If JFK is a mosaic of brilliance and bullshit, what does it add up to? Stone's own claims for the film have receded over time. In recent years, he seems to have settled for calling it a "counter myth" whatever the hell that means. 

This brings us to the distinction (always important to point out) between what an artist intends and what they actually create. A film is an object, and it exists in and of itself. Once created, it has a life of its own. 

Watching JFK in November 2020 is a particularly surreal experience. If Stone's goal in 1991 was to undermine confidence in the government, the press, and the whole concept of shared facts, then we are truly living out the consequences of a loss of faith in those same things. As I write this, the President of the United States is attempting to pull off a political coup by throwing last week's election of Joe Biden into doubt. It doesn't matter that Trump's starting with his conclusion (essentially "I could not have lost the election") and working backward to find anything that can be used as evidence to support that conclusion. He began ringing this bell four years ago when he lost the popular vote. Unable to win a majority of votes, he's been insisting his entire term that his loss at the polls can only be evidence of fraud. He now has the entire apparatus of the executive branch trying to cobble together something that looks like proof. 

With this in mind, Stone's Jim Garrison (played to perfection by a rarely-better Kevin Costner) is a hero for the age of Trump. In real life, Garrison was a thoroughly discredited, attention-seeking crackpot. (One of his first theories, as he explained it to journalist James Phelan in 1967, was that the plot to kill Kennedy was a "homosexual thrill killing," which is what led him to hound people like David Ferrie and Clay Shaw, innocent men whose lives were pretty much ruined by Garrison.) Stone's Garrison, though, is an American archetype: the one good man able to perceive the dim candle of truth flickering behind a black veil of lies. Or, really, I should say veils, plural, because in this movie America--its institutions, its government, its culture, its very history--is just one black veil draped over another. Stone's film postulates a worldview where a man's suspicions are the only truth he needs. That's pretty much the operating conviction of about half of America at this point, a national paranoia in place of a national faith. 

In JFK, Stone is never able to wrangle all of his suspicions into a workable theory of the assassination because every conspiracy theory creates too many dead ends or contradictions. So instead he creates a Frankenstein theory that stitches together a bunch of disparate theories. At one point in the epic courtroom scene at the end, Garrison speculates that Oswald was in the book depository on 11-22-63 to "either take part in the assassination or to stop it." This is a massive shrug in place of an answer to the central question of the film. Yet, here again, the brilliance of the film is that it knows it doesn't need to provide answers. The questions are all the proof that's required to accomplish Stone's goal of convincing his audience that the truth is hidden and everybody but him is lying about it. That sense, of a world controlled by dark, unseen forces, is the defining ethos of America in 2020.

At the heart of Stone's film, and the entire JFK conspiracy mill, is a refusal to accept that Kennedy's death was meaningless. In a way, this denial is understandable. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was a disturbed nobody who bought a cheap gun through the mail and then murdered the most powerful man in the world. The only idea more disturbing than the idea that he changed history is the idea that he did it for no good reason at all. In disillusioning an entire generation and essentially handing the presidency to Lyndon Johnson, he arguably made more of a lasting impact on American culture than JFK himself. That's an ugly reality, one that people have never been content to accept. Stone's film--like all conspiracy theories--is really an attempt to make sense of the senseless. After all, if JFK was killed by the CIA and the military-industrial complex because he was going to pull troops out of Vietnam, then he died a hero's death, a martyr's death. If, on the other hand, he died because Lee Harvey Oswald wanted to be famous then he died a meaningless death, shot in the back of the head by an idiot. 

In his final courtroom summation in the film, Costner's Garrison paraphrases Tennyson and implores the jury, "Do not forget your dying king." In lifting up the murder of John F. Kennedy to the status of regicide, Stone places these events into an almost mythic context: a great king betrayed by a powerful web of enemies hidden in plain sight all around him. It doesn't matter that Stone's film is a patchwork of nonsense. JFK has the feel of an expose` that is revealing a dark and complex truth. Instead, Stone captures something else entirely: the distinctly American tendency to stubbornly refuse to accept the truth.


Monday, September 21, 2020

DECEPTION (1946)


A woman walks out of the rain and into a university concert hall where a cellist is just finishing a performance. The students swarm around him to proclaim his greatness, but then he and the woman lock eyes. They are long lost lovers, separated by the war, each assuming the other was dead. The cellist is Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) and the woman is a pianist named Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis). They embrace and go back to her place to plan their wedding and start their lives over again. Everything’s going great until Karel notices that Christine has a nice place. A curiously nice place. Where, he wonders, does she get the money to afford such a swank apartment with such an impressive view of the New York skyline?

Christine tells Karel that she gives piano lessons to rich pupils who reward her lavishly. Karel doesn’t believe that, but he tries to make himself believe it, at least until a massively successful and world-famous composer named Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) busts into their wedding reception in a jealous fury.

DECEPTION is a noir melodrama as opposed to a noir crime film. There are no gangsters or bank heists, no femme fatales or hardboiled detectives. This is a love triangle, with two men in love with same woman. One man is good (though capable of jealous rages) while the other man is a possessive, egotistical psychopath. The woman, it must be said, is a liar, albeit a bad one. She tries her best to juggle these two guys, along with the several different stories about her true relationship to each one of them, until everything comes crashing down.

While DECEPTION is no masterpiece, it is a perfectly good star vehicle for Bette Davis. This is the kind of film that demonstrates why Warner Brothers might have made, on average, more good movies than any other studio during the Golden Age of Hollywood. MGM was the biggest studio, and Paramount was the most “classy,” but the average run of the mill production from Warner’s was usually tighter and more fun than those of its competitors. Highly capable, if not particularly inspired, direction from Irving Rapper, economical scripting from John Collier and Joseph Than (adapting a play by Louis Verneuil), and gorgeous cinematography from Ernest Haller, all make for a film that knows what it’s doing. What kicks things up a notch, making this a superior example of the Warner Brothers output, are the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the performances of Bette Davis and Claude Rains.

Along with Max Steiner, Korngold defined the sound of Warner Brothers in the 30s and 40s. (For a few years in the mid-40s, they were joined by the great Franz Waxman.) Steiner was the studio work horse, often forced to compose an entire score in only a few weeks, eventually tallying about 185 scores over the course of thirty years at the studio. Korngold, on the other hand, was treated like a prize horse, given months to work out his elaborate compositions, usually at the rate of about two movies a year. (A former child prodigy who had matured into one of the most respected composers in Europe until the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee to America, he ended up being the “prestige” composer at Warner’s.) For DECEPTION, Korngold composed a cello concerto for the film’s climax, wherein Hollenius tortures Christine and Karel with the promise of a masterful new concerto to showcase Karel’s skill and launch his career in America. Korngold’s composition is such a moody triumph that he expanded it into a full-length work, his Op. 37, the Cello Concerto in C.

To be honest, Paul Henreid almost always leaves me a bit cold, and his performance here is merely serviceable when another performer could have made Karel a truly haunted figure. He’s outmatched by Bette Davis, who holds the screen as well as any actor ever could. Whether she’s lying, making love, or just thinking, you can’t really take your eyes off of her. Having said that, however, the film is stolen right out from under its headliner by Claude Rains as the mad composer Hollenius. At his best, as he is here, there was really no better actor in the 1940s than Claude Rains. Whether he was the lovable crooked policeman in CASABLANCA or the murderous husband in NOTORIOUS (to name just two of his many, many supporting roles), he was always smoothly urbane, undeniably corrupted, and unmistakably human. Here he makes a Hollenius a tiny tower of insecurity, brilliance, and nonchalant cruelty. He’s the best thing about the movie.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

FLESH AND BONE (1993)

 

To be a true cinephile, you need at least one object of obsession that belongs to you alone. Loving STAR WARS doesn't make you a cinephile any more than loving McDonald's makes you a foodie. And being obsessed with someone like David Lynch or an oddball failure like Tommy Wiseau's THE ROOM only means that you belong to a cult. Please understand that none of the preceding is intended to diminish STAR WARS, THE ROOM, or the films of David Lynch. I'm just saying that none of them belong to any one fan, or even small group of fans, anymore. Once an ancillary industry builds around the fandom of a particular film or filmmaker, the original film becomes more of a small business and/or a quasi-religion.

To be a real cinephile, by contrast, means being a cult of one. There are no t-shirts made about your object of obsession, no film-about-the-film, no spinoffs, reboots, sequels, or prequels. There's just a movie that someone made that you saw and fell deeply in love with.

Which brings us to FLESH AND BONE. Written and directed by Steve Kloves, the film is a Texas noir starring Dennis Quaid as Arlis Sweeney,  a solitary man who spends his days driving across the Lone Star State stocking vending machines. One night at a honky tonk, he meets Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), a woman fleeing an abusive husband. Kay just kind of drifts into Arlis's life and decides to stay, but before long trouble arrives in the ominous form of Roy Sweeney (James Caan), Arlis's brutal criminal father. He brings with him uncomfortable reminders of past crimes.

We know what those crimes are. In the film's opening scenes, set in Arlis's childhood, we see the events that tie these characters together. Roy and Arlis attempt to rob a farmhouse in the middle of the night. When the family wakes up, Roy executes everyone in the house. Everyone except a baby girl.

Of course, the baby girl grows up to be Kay Davies and although Arlis assures his father that she never needs to find out what happened on that long ago night, the wicked old man isn't so sure. "It's robbing me of my sleep. And you know how I value my sleep." The final confrontation between father and son is inevitable.

FLESH AND BONE is novelistic in its depth and in the measured way it tells its story. It comes billed as a "thriller" or a "mystery" in most descriptions, though its not really either of those things. There's some gun play at the beginning and again at the end, but it's not for thrills, and there's not really a mystery to be solved, no "whodunit" to figure out. We know from the start whodunit.

Instead, the pleasures of the film are in the character details, the low rolling Texas landscape, and the sense of guilt and foreboding that hangs over everything. There's more than a bit of Jim Thompson here, in the way that genial good ol' boy conversations mask violent intentions, and in the way low-rent grifters drift from place to place doing damage and then moving on.

But FLESH AND BONE is its own thing. The film's central section, before Roy shows back up, is just Arlis and Kay riding around in his truck getting to know each other, sharing the bond of people who have survived traumas and disappointments, and find themselves falling in love. Quaid and Ryan were married at the time, and unlike some married couples who somehow don't quite click onscreen, their chemistry here is natural and easy. Quaid reigns in his normal energy, that cocky country swagger that made him a star (he only deploys his famous smile once or twice in the film). He's reserved, quiet, repressed. Yet his performance isn't devoid of emotion. "You were always so...sensitive," his father tells him disdainfully, and we know that this is true. Arlis's whole personality is like an oil derrick, slowly measuring out the inexhaustible ocean of emotion just below the surface. Ryan on the other hand gives a performance of charm and bruised wit. It's unlike most of the performances we associate her with, less bubbly than her romantic comedies but not as dire as some of the darker works later in her career. She makes Kay a quirky lost soul, someone who might have had a very different life if not for the tragedy in her past.

I love all the little touches in the movie, like the details of Arlis's vending machine business. He stocks chili, condoms, and candy bars, but he also specializes in "exotic attractions" like Brainy Betty, a live chicken, painted blue, that sits in a glass box and plays tic-tac-toe for a quarter a game. "What makes her so brainy?" Kay asks. "She wins nine games out of ten," Arlis answers.

There are also nice supporting roles that deepen the themes of the story. A young Gwyneth Paltrow plays Roy's protegee girlfriend, a sour-faced grifter who shows up at funerals claiming to be a long lost relative and then steals jewelry off the bodies of the deceased. (Paltrow is excellent, and the role is a reminder that before she became the face of rich white lady cluelessness, Paltrow could be believable as trash.) And Scott Wilson is fantastic in a small role as Arlis's shifty employee, a man who is probably stealing from Arlis but who still emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, anyway. Both these roles mirror the leads in interesting ways, with Paltrow as a meaner, more beat up version of Kay, and Wilson as an older, sadder version of Arlis. 

The result of all of this is a rich film, one that creates its own west Texas universe of love and loss. The central symbol of the film is a single blue star--a tattoo hidden just below Alris's hairline, but also the neon sign at the top of the Stardust motel where he lives, and the Willie Nelson version of the song "Stardust" Arlis and Kay dance to one night--a reminder of a past that can't be escaped. That's ultimately what FLESH AND BONE is all about, the way the past isn't just a distant memory, but a mark made on us that we can't really escape.

I was being a little cheeky at the start by saying that I'm a cult of one for this film. I assume there are other people out there who love it as much as I do. But our number is not legion. FLESH AND BONE lost money at the box office when it was released in 1993, got middling reviews (Roger Ebert, for instance, dismissed it with two stars), and has not developed a noticeable online following. The film's main creative force Steve Kloves, who had previously directed THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, later went on to a hugely successful career writing the Harry Potter movies, but he hasn't directed another film since FLESH AND BONE. Its current IMDB score is a flaccid 6.2 and in the 27 years since its release there has been virtually no scholarship about the film.

And yet, for me, the film is personal favorite, one that's haunted me and intrigued me since I first saw it in a theater in Little Rock 27 years ago. FLESH AND BONE was the first movie I ever saw in a theater by myself. I was 18 and had just moved away from home. I sat there in the dark, in the almost completely empty auditorium, and I knew as I watched it that this film was for me. It's been a guiding star ever since.    


Thursday, July 23, 2020

THE SWIMMER (1968)



What a strange, strange film. Just to describe the story of THE SWIMMER is to be amazed that it was ever made into a major motion picture. A man decides to spend a day "swimming across the county" via a route of suburban swimming pools. That's it. That's the plot. He goes from pool to pool until he makes it back to his house. Just imagine, someone actually greenlit a movie with that plot. Of course, the plot doesn't really capture how the film unfolds, how we learn more and more about about the man, how the movie takes on the weight of a tragedy.

The movie begins on a sunny day in a WASPy Connecticut suburb when a man named Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the woods and jumps into the backyard swimming pool of some friends. Everyone is hungover, lounging by the water, nursing drinks, when Ned shows up in his swimsuit. They seem happy to see him, but where's he been keeping himself? Seems like they haven't seen him in a while. Ned has a drink, flirts with the women, slaps backs with the men, playfully jostles a few expanding waistlines and blithely accepts compliments on his own impressive physique. It's all amiable enough, but there's an undercurrent of strangeness, a certain halting lag between some of the conversation, especially in the way his friends glance at each other when Ned announces his decision to swim the pools back to his house where his wife and daughters are waiting for him. 

Who is Ned? Where has he been? We don't know, but we start to gather information about who he has been and the role he's played in this community. Oozing affluence, boozy charm, and self-entitled lechery, he seems like the kind of middle-aged man who might have been partying at the beach house with Teddy Kennedy and the boiler room girls in Chappaquiddick.

As if foreshadowing the tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne, for part of his journey Ned's joined by a pretty young woman named Julie (Janet Landgard) who used to babysit his two daughters. They run around an obstacle course until Ned turns his ankle. Julie admits she had a crush on him when she was a girl and then confides that she's being sexually harassed at work, but when Ned takes this information as an invitation to put his hands on her, Julie runs away. 

As Ned Merrill continues on his journey across the county, we learn more about him. Some people are happy to see him. Others are not. A few, in fact, are furious. What starts out as a lark turns into an endurance test. At first, the day is warm and sunny. Running around in nothing but swim trunks seems almost normal. But as the day turns darker and colder, storm clouds gather. By the end, he's just a nearly naked man trying to cross a busy freeway, limping home in the freezing rain. 

There's more that could be divulged about what we learn about Ned on his way home, but the film needs to be experienced on its own terms. The less you know, the better. 

THE SWIMMER was a bomb when it was first released, which surely came as a surprise to no one.  It fits into no easy categories, and it does not have a clear auteur. It was scripted by Eleanor Perry from a John Cheever short story and directed by her husband Frank. These days, the gifted Frank Perry is best known as the director of the camp classic MOMMIE DEAREST, which isn't much of a directorial calling card. Plus, the producer (with the apparent backing of the star) fired Perry toward the end of production and brought in a young Sidney Pollack to completely reshoot some of the scenes. This produces a strange jumpiness to the film. For example, Pollack reshot some "outside" scenes between Lancaster and Landgard on a soundstage, creating a trippy contrast to the actual outdoor footage Perry shot for the rest of the sequence. The penultimate scene of the film, where Ned confronts his former mistress, played by Barabra Loden, was also scrapped, the role recast with Janice Rule, and the scene reshot.

So, a troubled production resulted in a box office failure. That should have been the end of it, but THE SWIMMER has only grown in stature over the years. Once seen, it can't really be forgotten. Its strange rhythms pull you in and stay with you. Eleanor Perry's script is brilliant. The Cheever short story is available online and should be read--it's a haunting piece of work all on its own--but the way Perry fleshed out the story in her script builds Ned's world pool by pool. 

At the center of it all is Burt Lancaster, in what may well be his best performance. He had always been a big strapping stud. Think THE KILLERS or BRUTE FORCE in the '40s. (He was one of noir's most swaggering male presences.) By 1968, he was the perfect actor to play Ned Merrill, putting his body and his ego on display, letting them both be torn down bit by bit.

This finally brings us to the swim trunks. Lancaster wears them in every single scene. He has no other wardrobe. In the first scene, he is resplendent, the very model of middle-aged health. It's a sunny day, everyone is lounging by the pool, so it makes sense. But scene by scene, it starts to seem strange that this guy is wandering around the woods and people's backyards in nothing but his tight little swimsuit. Scene by scene, as the weather changes, as the social settings change, as his relationship to the other characters change, this tired, 55-year-old man limping around mostly naked starts to seem sad and pathetic. His physical glory in the opening scenes takes on a tragic grander, until we realize we were seeing the last shining moment before his ego started to finally unravel for good.   

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THE SWIMMER has engendered a lot of good writing over the years. I particularly like this piece by Travis Woods "A Life in the Day: The Masculine Irreality of THE SWIMMER."