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The pools of 'The Swimmer' (1968): exurbia, topography, decay

posted on 2023-06-09, 15:00 authored by Christopher BrownChristopher Brown
The chapter discusses how 'The Swimmer' (Frank Perry, 1968) tends to align itself with Marxist readings of author John Cheever’s work, somewhat diverging from the preoccupations of the writer himself, who always resisted the imposition of a single interpretation upon his short story. If the film risked accusations of hypocrisy as it deployed ten pools and speedo-clad star Burt Lancaster in a critique of the idle rich, then a central motif is the exurban attempts at ascendancy over a predominantly natural environment. In contrast to the topographical make-believe of the ‘quasi-subterranean stream’ in which Lancaster’s insane protagonist Ned seeks to swim, the film provides evidence of a reality that is material, tangible, and hazardous; screenwriter Eleanor Perry in her adaptation emphasizes the redemption of reality in the Kracauerian sense. Less neutrally, the cold and empty pools that appear later in the film actively accelerate a drama of disintegration, a character arc of irrevocable physical and moral decay. This arguably has much in common with the emphasis of literary Naturalism on thermodynamics and entropy. The Swimmer ‘might well be called The Alumnus,’ one reviewer joked upon the film’s release in May 1968. ‘It says to an older group what The Graduate is saying to a younger.’1 As Burt Lancaster’s character dives into one luxurious swimming pool after another, he is implicated as something of a ‘Mr Robinson’ – a spokesperson for, and a casualty of, a compromised older generation. The Swimmer was directed by Frank Perry and was based on a short story by John Cheever, published in 1964. Its protagonist is the middle-aged Ned Merrill, who resides in wooded, suburban Connecticut.2 One day he decides to ‘swim the county’ on his way home, running cross-country, stopping to swim a length in each of his friends’ pools. As he heads back towards his wife and daughters, Ned is increasingly niggled by feelings of unease: his sense of time and place is disrupted, and friends behave strangely towards him, making allusions to a less-than-perfect family life. Disturbed and physically exhausted, Ned finally returns to discover his house empty and dilapidated, with his family evidently long since departed.


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Peter Lang

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The cinema of the swimming pool




New Studies in European Cinema

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  • Media and Film Publications

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Christopher Brown, Pam Hirsch

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