Monthly Archives: July 2021

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

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

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 11 July 2021; ticket £7

    Penelope and Odysseus

    The naked male body as an actual physical presence has been (as far as I am aware) limited as a type of mainstream cultural expression. What comes to mind when I think of the male body as pure form is the sculptural presentation of the male in Ancient Greece, Eaweard Muybridge and Morrissey and Riefenstahl’s films. In nineteenth century painting and also much photography of the male body, the bodies seem to either to be representational images, icons, or to have been realised as objects of gaze. In this sense when viewing these sorts of images I am not confronted by the proximity of male physicality in the same sense that I am in the presence of those Greek sculptures.

    But then emerging out of the waters of East Coast suburban swimming pools comes ‘The Swimmer’. It’s a movie starring Burt Lancaster as the protagonist, Ned.   Lancaster stripped down to the buff, an actual male body: he is not selling anything, he doesn’t represent anything other than himself, he is not an object. He is a presence, a body moving across the manicured lawns of American suburbia. Lancaster, a presence that is vulnerable and defines and delimits the world on his own terms of naked physicality.

    The Swimmer is 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 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. Cheever’s story feels like a draft rather than the finished article. Ideas and possibilities are suggested not developed. It is script writer Eleanor Perry’s interpretation of the Swimmer’s potential that transforms Cheever’s writing into a compelling moral lesson, taking the material and fashioning it into a feminist retort to misogyny and male arrogance. Perry’s writing grounds the male body in a mythic structure, maintaining the story’s natatorial structure but recalibrating its content.

    Under Cheever’s pen, Ned’s body is almost an abstraction. Through the lens of Frank Perry’s camera, Ned’s Body is a demanding vibrant physical phenomenon. The subject of the Swimmer is the stripped male body, both its vulnerability in general but 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 one of the film’s first lines (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 progresses down the valley from one pool side setting to another we see that Ned’s body is increasingly out of place, out of time. Ned, dripping water is an undisguised primal man long overtaken by the forces of civilisation. The body of today is marked by its outer mantel of dress denoting power status fashion and wealth. The bared body, in particular the bared male body feels like an anachronism, belonging to a primitive past or to a child.

    And the notion of the man/male /child is a parallel theme energising Perry’s vision of Ned’s Odyssey. The closer Ned approaches his home the more the forces of disintegration and regression overtake him. The man becomes teenager becomes little boy becomes child becomes foetus; the waters of the pools become retro-amniotic fluids unmaking Ned, stripping the man back to his infancy.

    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. This aspect of male presence runs through ‘the Swimmer’s ’ script but reaches its climax in Ned’s visit to his old flame Shirley. He finds her lounging poolside in the sun.   As Lancaster sits next to her body, touching her, as he stalks her then 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 Shirley’s resistance. Shirley, at the point where she seems overwhelmed by the physical forces both within herself within the man, finds the inner strength to break the insistence of male attraction. She chokes off her yielding; cuts off Ned’s power takes control of herself. She frees herself from the past, from physical memory, frees herself from the press of the male body, both the man and the child.

    The Swimmer is a film of a mythic negative resonance. It is a phantom contemporary retelling of the Odyssey, in particular in its intimate recesses. Like Ned, Odysseus too has to find his way home across the waters; but in The Swimmer, this story refashioned by Eleanor Perry, is retold 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. Before the man’s body, the woman must see the child, because that is what Western culture/society has produced: children in men’s bodies. A modern myth.

    adrin neatrour





  • Playing Away   Horace Ove (UK; 1987)  

    Playing Away   Horace Ove (UK; 1987)   Norman Beaton; Nicolas Farrell

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 4th July 2021; ticket £7

    We won’t be back

    The final sequence of Horace Ove’s ‘Playing Away’ sees the black cricket team pile into their minibus, leaving the leafy white suburban village to return to the streets of Brixton from whence they came. The last shot is an impressionistic shot taken from the front seat of their vehicle: back in Brixton, driving under Brixton Road railway bridge. They are home. And that is where they’ll stay. As the two teams say their respective ‘goodby’s’ there’s been no indication, either from the black cricket team or from their white hosts that there will be a return fixture. Held together by the force of convention, the interaction between the two groups has remained mostly polite and amicable; but the underlying fissures and tensions experienced by both parties mean there will be no repeat event: no return invitation.   And that’s not cricket.

    ‘Playing Away’ is often described as a ‘comedy of manners’. This description does little justice to Ove’s film.   It’s not a comedy. Yes it has humour, but it is a polished insightful probe into race and class interaction. To my knowledge it is one of the very few films that take on the subject of everyday race interaction. ‘Playing Away’ is not set up as the usual oppositional police/gangs sort of context; but as its obverse; the ordinary, race in the everyday flow of life. Ove’s scenario plots the interactions between people which are governed by the informal social rules and norms which have of purpose of easing day to day business between people and nullifying potential sources of conflict.   These rules are typified by but not exclusive to the interactions in White Middle Class society. Using the device of the cricket match ( Cricket is an oppositional game but it is grounded in etiquette) ‘Playing Away’ tests out the boundaries of race and class. Cricket with its rules and protocols, is an arch exemplifier of a ‘bounded world’, participation in which is mediated by agreed standards of behaviour.   As one character in the film points out: its not the game that is important, nor how well you can play the game. What’s important are the rules, the rules of the game.   Shades of Renoir here, as the rules of class and cricket collude to provide a micro study in how these different groups relate, and who actually obeys the rules.

    ‘The rules of the game’ are designed to create the conditions that put all players on an equal footing; this might apply to cricket but not to the processes of life as ‘Playing Away’ itself testifies.

    One of strengths of Caryl Phillips’ and Ove’s script is that it is a collective piece.   The opening sequence of ‘Playing Away’ is set in Brixton, presenting the West Indians as a community, with shared values, shared understanding of a way of life and the hostile conditions their life style must endure because of their colour. This generates a film that has a strong ensemble feel with each of the cricket team members, both the men and women, representing something more than themselves, the particular ethos of their culture, understood not so much from what they say, but from the manner and style of their being ‘present’.

    The structure of the main body of the film is built on a series of intercut vignettes. Individual members of the team split off and take up with various of the white villagers, engendering narratives that interweave and intersect as strips of action on the eve of the match. This splitting of attention allows ‘Playing Away’ to untangle some of the different threads represented in the script: class race gender sex. Phillips’ script defines both the White and Black communities as natural populations, each with their own gender sexual generational and class tensions. Although all the West Indians experience racist attitudes, whether from the condescension of the upper middle class toffs or the aggro of the country boys, race prejudice is overlaid by class prejudice. The West Indians are not only black they are also working class, foreign bodies who are doubly different from their hosts. The exception is one member of the Brixton team, who as a race relations officer, has taken a significant step into the bourgeoisie. He’s still black, that is where his roots lie, but his movement into white collar world sets up significant raw areas of distrust and concomitant tension between himself and his team mates.

    In the interactions between the races there is little overt violence in ‘Playing Away’. What Ove does communicate is an underlying feeling of a repressed violence in the psychic make up of the teams.  But this submerged current has quite different roots in the whites and blacks and violence and aggressive assertion whilst mostly under control is provoked in quite different ways. Amongst the white population the unrestrained psychic and actual violence of racism is mostly, but not certainly not exclusively coming from the poor whites, the rural underclass. It is important for their white self image to be able to assert racial superiority to denigrate blacks as inferior degenerate types.   The poorer or more insecure the greater the need to pull racial rank, culminating in ‘Playing Away’ in the attempted assault on one of the black accompanying women; and at the climax of the ‘match’ itself when a group of the white village players walk off the pitch, breaking the very rules of the game rather than lose to the Brixton team.

    The underlying violence of the black team comes from a different place. As Baldwin once commented the blacks don’t really care about the whites. What they would like is just to be left alone by them. But they are not left alone. They are derided, subject to white prejudice, judged and hounded blocked and frustrated by the white man. And as recipients of all this abuse, they have to stay in control of themselves, or risk vicious retaliation. But it’s life lived on the edge of an eruption of resentment. And at certain points a relatively trivial incident will set the fuse for an explosion of emotional rage that that will rip the lid off the situation. And it is this feeling of living with suppressed anger that Ove and Phillips represent in ‘Playing Away’ that connects the characters to the real challenge of surviving as a black in a white world. The idea embedded in the title of their film, its script and scenario is that ‘the black team’ is always in the situation of ‘Playing Away’.

    adrin neatrour

  • Mandabi Ousmane Sembele (1968; Fr)

    Mandabi      Ousmane Sembele (1968; Fr)   Makhouredia Gueye

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle   20 June 2021; ticket: £7

    …and they will be bearded…

    Sembele’s ‘Mandabi’ set in Dakar, in post colonial Senegal, offers a perspective into the lives of its inhabitants, the conditions under which they live, and hints as to how these conditions will come to haunt us all.   Sembele’s script penetrates into the ordinary through a simple device that opens up the ambiguities of this society: the need to cash a postal order. Particular to Sembele as an African film maker is his intimate understanding of the richness of his subject. He doesn’t need the pretext of murder or robbery, he just needs a postal order and the situation unfolds.

    The opening sequence of Mandabi sees the protagonist Ibrahim sitting in one of the town’s squares receiving the attentions of a barber, who’s using an open razor to depilate Ibrahim’s nose and to apply the finishing touches to his coiffure. Ibrahim is immediately represented as a man who is vain proud and clean shaven, from head to chin: he faces the world on these terms. But it’s a front, and the sequence introduces the interwoven purpose of Sembele’s film: to satirise the distorted claims of male gender supremacy, but also to communicate to the audience that Ibraham’s situation in this satire, has roots and consequences.

    Sembele’s intention is to move beyond Western imagery of African representation. To expose a Western ‘Africanism’ in the same way that Edward Said was exposing and attacking ‘Orientalism’.   Both Western thought modes developed to systematically define and control their human objects. When Africa is filmed by Western filmmakers, what we usually see are the ‘successful’ black intermediaries, the powerful inheritors of Western systems, who in their imitative behaviour collude with the values of their paymasters. Otherwise Africans play walk on parts: cheating shop keepers, cheerful workers, happy-go–lucky street vendors. As cardboard cut outs they are summoned into scenarios to accommodate the need for local atmosphere and colour. When sat in front of his barber, Ibrahim is an image of male vanity. It’s an image that Ibrahim himself would like to claim, but Sembele cuts through Ibrahim’s skin into the grain of his life. Behind his image, Ibrahim is another unemployed man, with nothing more than his maleness and formulaic religious enunciations of his Islamic faith upholding his dignity and self worth. The more his situation deteriorates, the more important to Ibrahim become assertion of both his maleness and his Islam. Without work, without identity papers, with a large family, two wives and five children, Ibrahim in effect is a non- person in his own land.

    Lacking a formal identity, in the eyes of the state you don’t exist. One particular consequence of colonial rule was the creation and extension of control systems deep into the fabric of civil society. In particular this was important in relation to land ownership where European systems of registration of property ownership were introduced in many colonised lands. Firstly enabling the occupying powers to tax and claim land for themselves; and secondly allowing their local proxy rulers similar rights: to enjoy both privileged work/ careers and manipulation and access to the new civil laws imported form the Mother country. Ibrahim and his extended family are in the situation of being in double jeopardy in the post-colonial situation. First exploited by the French occupation of their country and at ‘Independence’ handed over to the privileged local elite that the colonial power had selected to be the inheritors of their system.   The ordinary folk like Ibrahim remained locked out from participation the economic and political spheres of life. Their fate was and still is be disinherited, the impoverished reliquaries of the system designed to benefit the local elite and their ‘ex-masters.’

    ‘Mandabi’ uses the remittance culture to highlight all these problems.   Remittance culture is of course familiar to us from its recent vast extension into the Gulf States, where whole cities, stadia and islands in the ocean have been built on labour of temporary immigrants lured to the Gulf by the prospect of able to earn money that can be remitted back home. With no work for them in their own countries, these workers, labouring under slave like conditions, work in order to send their wages back home so that their families can eat. Sembele’s script gives social substance to the remittance culture – the complexity of life at the comsuming end of the money chain. There is also the moot point that this economic arrangement provides cheap labour for the host; and in the donor country it acts as a sort of safety net for the poor, preventing conditions of poverty becoming so grave that the system would be forced to change.

    For the most part remittance people, as in ‘Mandabi’, are non people. They have no access to education, work or privilege. There are barely any state systems to support income, only the hope of money from abroad. In ‘Mandabi’ the only recourse in times of need is to the collectivity, that network of extended family to sustain individuals. It is kith and kin networks that in their complex reciprocity both sustain life and engender tension. There is no escape from these opposing conditions.

    As Ibrahim, ever more a lost soul, wanders across Dakar on his futile mission to cash the mandate, the lives of those counting on this money also start to crumble in despair. His wives, his sisters, nieces and nephews face hunger and ruin. And outside Ibrahim’s house lurks the real estate Shark with his eye on purchasing Ibrahim’s house, at a distressed knock down price. It’s Ibrahim’s one tangible asset. When he is forced to sell his house in order to eat, as certainly he will have to, he will be destitute. His destitution will the further undermine his fragile self esteem. Ibrahim will then have resort to ever more extreme claims on male privilege and the certainties of Islam to maintain his fragile sense of self. A destitute Ibrahim will no longer be a subject of gentle satire, his behaviour will have moved beyond parody.

    Completely dispossessed with his wives and children dependent on him and remittances, Ibrahim will soldier on until his death. But Sembele’s film provides a haunting look at the phantom that will materialise in the future: Boko Haram. Ibrahim did not rise up against the forces that conditioned and defined his life. Perhaps his sons did not. But his grandsons and thousands like them with only their gender and Islam as the props of their identity are now the soldiers of Boko Haram. They are no longer non-persons. Under Boko Haram they are the ones shaping the future and riding the storm of change – both personal and collective.   At this point 50 years on from ‘Mandabi’, Ibrahim’s male descendants see no other choice. They are not clean shaven like their grandfather, they are bearded. They are the spectres haunting Mandabi.

    Adrin Neatrour