Deconstructing the American dream with Sydney Pollack’s 1968 film ‘The Swimmer’
“This is the day Ned Merrill swims across the county.”
An outlandish claim, one made in a fantastical realisation by Burt Lancaster as he casts his eyes across the suburban Connecticut Valley in Sydney Pollack’s 1968 film The Swimmer. The claim is met with confusion from his friends as they lounge around their luxurious hillside villa. They admire his bravery and youthful enthusiasm but seem detached and vacant. “Why would you want to swim home?”
Based on John Cheever’s short story of the same name, The Swimmer accounts an ‘evening’ of Ned Merrill’s life where he decides to swim home “along a river of sapphire pools”. Pool by pool, he reconnects with old friends and greets distant strangers with the same adolescent energy until his smiles and good-will is met with animosity.
Despite the spontaneity of his challenge, everything seems conveniently prepared. Characters greet him upon arrival with robotic uniformity; Actors in Ned’s ‘Truman Show’. Stiff and oddly alien, it’s as if they are reading from a teleprompter as they engage in rigid, fantastical dialogue. In fact, it’s such a mix of the fantasy and realism that it’s hard to discern between the two. One moment he is turned away from the house of a childhood friend by a spiteful mother, the next he races alongside a horse to the tune of an epic western chase—one he is bound to lose. The timescale is disjointed and the geography unclear as Ned’s journey unwinds along a road of adventurous tragedy.
Setting off on a day of blistering azure skies, clouds quickly converge, the leaves soon fall and it’s unclear when or where we are. As this happens, we plunge and wind around the nearby trees with dramatic speed and almost impossible agility, similar to that of contemporary drone footage. We spy on Ned from above in a horror-inspired point of view shot before joining him below in sensual slow motion, inspired by the most elaborate of perfume adverts. It’s a strong juxtaposition that separates us from Ned whilst also tethering us to his warped point of view.
His former glory gradually disappears with the departure of the sun. He becomes cold and weary, his skin overly wrinkled and aged, a ghostly spirit drifting through town. His sudden presence through the bushes of the suburban gardens becomes increasingly unwanted as he flings himself in the pool with all the grace and precision of a plank of wood.
If the ‘American Dream’, in all its glory of suburban wealth, career success and familial fulfilment were to physically exist, Ned would be its fallen angel. With all the swagger, sophistication and bronzed skin of an idealistic devotee of Uncle Sam, it’s a wonder how he never reached the heights of those who now mock his downtrodden appearance. While he may appear to possess traits of success, it’s clear that this is a case of sheer disillusion. Pretending to swim through an emptied swimming pool with a young companion, he says: “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”
The golden colour palette and ethereal cinematography become a hallucinatory peephole through the eyes of Ned. Seeing his past and present through a physical nostalgia, bottled up and viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Striving for identity and life long-lost, he is treading water within an empty pool, under dark grey skies. Living out an American dream that will forever remain as such.
Captured within the summer season of youthful adventure and fleeting romance, Ned is a victim to his own wistful imagination, desperately clutching hold of his waning youth and ‘optimistic future’. Though in reality, he is going nowhere at all, a stagnant contradiction to the sterile pool water he adores.
When all is lost and hopeless, he revisits that summer feeling of his youth. When to swim home would have been an exuberant possibility and reality. A yearning for adventure and the epic ideal that such summer nostalgia arises. As the great Johnathon Richman sings, “some things were good before and some things never were, but that summer feeling is gunna haunt you one day in your life.”