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.