The SwimmerFrank Perry (USA 1968; script Eleanor Perry) Burt Lancaster, Janice Rule
viewed dvd 2 March 2018
Penelope and Odysseus
The male body as an actual physical presence –not an object - has been (as far as I am aware) very limited as a form of mainstream cultural expression.All that comes to mind is the idealisation of the male form in Ancient Greece, and their corrupted imitators of Rome and Nazi Germany.There is nineteenth century painting and of course photography of the male body, but in these expressions of men, the bodies seem to be more objects of gaze.I am not overwhelmed by them in the same sense that I am in the physical presence of the marble Greek sculptures.
But then out of the blue we have The Swimmer, a movie starring Burt Lancaster as the protagonist, Ned.Lancaster stripped down to the buff, an actual male body,a presence not an object, moving across the manicured lawns of American suburbia.Lancaster, a presence that is vulnerable but always carries a menace in its capacity define the world and its relations on the terms of physicality.
The Swimmer is surely an act of homage that Lancaster chose to pay to his own body.The part of Ned was one that Lancaster was desperate to play, so much so that as the Swimmer ran out of money at the end of production, Lancaster contributed to paying for the final days of the shoot.
John Cheever wrote his original short story ‘The Swimmer’ for the New Yorker magazine.A wry commentator on life in the commuter hinterlands of New York City,Cheever’s eye was sensitised to the faintest of ripples disturbing the surface of the immaculately kept suburban swimming pools.
Cheever’s short story is an account of an all American suburbanite, Ned, who decides one fine day late in the summer, to swim the County.That is to say to leap frog his way home from an early morning drinks party using the many swimming pools of friends and neighbours to create an aquatic pathway back to his house.Under Cheever’s pen, Ned’s body is almost an abstraction.Under the eye of Frank Perry’s camera lens Ned’s Body is a dominating vibrant physical phenomenon.
Cheever’s story feels like a draft rather than the finished article.Ideas and possibilities are suggested not developed.It is Eleanor Perry’s interpretation of the Swimmer’s potential that transforms Cheever’s writing into a compelling film fable,a moral lesson, grounded in myth, that comprises an astute feminist critique.She maintains the story’s natatorial structure but recalibrates its content.
The subject of the Swimmer is the stripped male body. Both its vulnerability in general and in particular its power in relation to the female. Eleanor Perry’s scenario, realised with her husband’s direction subjects the male form to a scrutiny totally foreign to the symbolic posing that is Hollywood’s (and most of cinema’s) habitual default setting.
From the film’s first line (taken directly from Cheever), “ I drank too much last night!”, Ned, naked except trunks (no shoes), barrels his way across the gardens lawns terraces patios and tiled arbours of his wealthy friends and neighbours.As he moves from one pool side setting to another we see that Ned’s body in this setting is out of place, out of time.The bared body, in particular the bared male body feels like an anachronism, belonging to a despised ridiculed primitive past.Ned is primal man long overtaken by the forces of natural selection.The body of today is marked by outer dress denoting power status fashion and wealth.Lancaster’s nakedness stands in stark opposition to the smartly dressed people disporting themselves or partying in the arborial settings.
The people attired in fashionable and expensive clothes display that disguised superiority that defines the interaction between those whose conceit is that they are civilised and those whom they count savage.But there is an underlying particularly male contradiction implicit, that the impulse to belittle or banish the presence of the body is counterbalanced by fear that it possesses an originary prerogative that negates and renders void all the vainglory and signifying images of the clothed man.
The power that the male body presents is the potential it implies andthe desires it emanates and attracts.Lancaster’s body dominates the film as pure physique both as primal statement and sexual imperative.And it is the sexual imperative of the male body, its weight its press and presence in relation to the female, to which Perry’s script gives fullest attention.Lancaster/Ned’s visit to his old flame Shirley, finds her lounging in the sun.As Lancaster moves in close to her body, as he stalks her by the pool side, and closes in on her in the waters of the pool,you feel the animal magnetism of the male body as it draws and drains the power of her resistance.Shirley, at the point where she seems overwhelmed by the physical forces both within herself within the man, forces greater than her resolve not to give in, finds the inner means to break the force of attraction.She chokes off her yielding cuts off his power,and takes control of herself.She frees herself from the past, from physical memory, frees herself from the press of the male body.
The Swimmer is a film of mythic negative resonance. It is like phantom contemporary retelling of the Odyssey.Odysseus too has to find his way home across water, but in The Swimmer the story is so refashioned it’s as if when Odysseus after all his tribulations, finally gets to Ithaca and stands naked before Penelope demanding to possess her, she breaks off ;denies him and leaves.
A modern myth.