Monthly Archives: March 2018

  • The Swimmer Frank Perry (USA 1968; script Eleanor Perry)

    The Swimmer Frank Perry (USA 1968; script Eleanor Perry) Burt Lancaster, Janice

    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 and the 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. adrin neatrour

  • In the Heat of the Night Norman Jewison (USA 1967)

    In the Heat of the Night
    Norman Jewison (USA 1967) Sidney
    Poitier, Rod Steiger

    Viewed: dvd 12 March 2018

    you must remember this

    a kiss is still a kiss

    on that you can rely…

    According to Walter Mirish the film’s producer, Sidney Poitier agreed to play Virgil Tibbs on one condition: that the film be not shot in the South. Poitier’s perspective was that as a black movie star he would be a sitting duck in any of the southern states, and that he had no inclination to be a target for any racist good ol’ boy pitching for glory.

    Mirish agreed and the movie was shot in Sparta Illinois. The setting of Sparta Mississippi for the original novel being surely an ironic reference to the eponymous Hellenic slave state.

    Poitier’s resolve accords with James Baldwin’s critique of In the Heat of the Night (‘Heat’). Although some black academics in film studies are positive about the film’s role in advancing the status of blacks, Baldwin digs a little deeper, gets under the skin of the movie.

    ‘Heat’ is not a police crime/mystery drama. It is a drama about race that uses a police procedural setting as a heightening intensifier of the issues. ‘Heat’ is located in the hard ass violent world of Mississippi white supremacy. And the purpose of ‘Heat’s’ dramatic playing out, as understood through the role of the Sherriff, is to make white people feel good about themselves; to reconcile them to their history by use of and manipulation of comforting words gestures signs that tell that inform our white thoughts that times are changing, that we can now accept and respect the black, that he is no different from us, perhaps even equal.

    It is remarkable, that aside from Virgil Tibbs, ‘Heat’ is almost completely devoid of black people. There is a brief scene in which Virgil is introduced to a black guy, living out of town, who will put him up, but this guy plays no further part in the script; the abortionist is of course a black woman, which has a double edged irony; in one of the general wide town scenes I noticed one black man. The butler is black and the cotton pickers in the field are remote black figures. But it is an exclusively white world that Virgil enters. Like a knight in shining armour. As a moral exemplar in a land of beasts he does battle alone.

    Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is a shining example, a black virgin warrior. There’s no hanky panky on his part, he is pure and lives within himself without overt threat to white womanhood. Poitier is immaculately dressed in suit and tie, carries no gun. He is a figure of stature most of whose performance as Virgil is characterised by an affect image. Poitier’s face registers little reaction to the series of humiliations indignities grudging praise and hollow victories which Silliphant’s script doles out. Except for the moment when he is slapped in the face by the white land owner, whom he immediately pays back in kind, Poitier is an image that allows us the white audience to project onto him our hopes fears and illusions about race. Tibbs becomes a proxy mediating agent, assuaging white unease and discomfort even guilt about the history of race in the USA.

    The film’s key white presence is Steiger’s sheriff, who plays a role which essentially takes the path of the convert, converting from historical bigotry to a more enlightened toleration. Virgil’s task is to support the emotionally choked and baffled sheriff as he gropes his way towards the final scene at the railway station. The sheriff carrying Virgil’s suitcase, waves him off with the croaked emotionally charged final line: “You take care of yourself, you hear!”

    As Baldwin comments one traditional closure in the Hollywood product is the fade-out kiss. The kiss, which need not be a kiss, does not speak of ‘love’. It speaks of reconciliation; of all things now becoming possible. Baldwin’s comment is that in the sheriff’s last lines to Virgil, nothing is actually reconciled. No matter how much such a reconciliation may be hoped for, we are looking at people trapped in their own history. And what we see is that white americans have been encouraged to dream that the white world can simply wake up to a world that has been expanded to include a state of grace that comprises brotherhood with blacks. This promise of transformation is what the advertising industry sells, and it is ultimately what ‘Heat’ is selling. Blacks understand that they have to wake up from this dream.

    Baldwin’s initial remark concerning ‘Heat’ were that ‘Heat’s’ initial proposition, that a black cop would chose to change trains in the middle of the night in a small Southern backwater, is preposterous “…defies belief.” In making this statement, which sort of echoes Poitier’s own fears, Baldwin is of course stating that he is seeing the film through the perspective of being black. Being black at that particular moment in time, how else could he see it? Being Black is the ground upon the which he understands this movie. That is to say that to see ‘Heat’ is a particular type of experience that invokes colour and history of colour.

    For all that the film is, in its premise evasive of truth (as Baldwin notes when Virgil Tibbs leaves town, the sheriff will go back to his proper work which is to keep the blacks in their place.) in that it can be seen that, from the black perspective that it is time to wake up, the film delivers a positive that provides some sort of counterweight to its manipulation of the white psyche. adrin neatrour