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The Swimmer

The Swimmer posterSynopsis

Made in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster as the swimmer.  He proposes to get back home by swimming through each of the swimming pools on the way there.  He starts off optimistically surrounded by successful and seemingly friendly people  As he progresses the high summer gets autumnal.  The swimming pool hosts start from the friendly (one is hostile early in the film) to the snobby, then hostile and contemptuous.  He ends up back at his own house and everything is very different.

Criticism

One of the stars of this film is the swimming pool, the symbol of American affluence and self confidence.  In The Graduate it started as a symbol of Ben’s success, and ends up like bath water lapping his self pity.  In The Swimmer the pools are expensively cleaned, at the end he swims through eye burning chlorine.

Based on a story by John Cheever, it’s a tautly acted and written parable which packs a few morals depending on your interpretation.  Lancaster starts out as an enviable example of the American Dream.  He appears rich and successful and has two daughters and a wife.  His friends are as successful as he is and all is affluent and joyful. The first upset comes at the third pool where he is dismissed by a bitter tirade railing against Lancaster’s snubbing of a dying acquaintance.  We overhear elderly nativists  gossip about Lancaster’s problems and we know there’s something wrong.  Then he meets a young blonde admirer who refuses to satisfy his vanity by turning her childhood crush into a relationship and she is no longer the wholesome innocent she appears to be.  He then comes across a garden party where he is snubbed and learns that his wife sold a treasured possession behind his back.  Then he gets to a former lover who is very bitter with his status-seeking regard and she rebuffs him and tells him he is an inadequate.  Then he gets into a public swimming pool crowded with people.  There he is told about his family’s attitude towards him and he ends up in rain and squalor.

At first among the rich and successful, Lancaster is genuinely positive and thinks the best of people in a Panglossian way, as if everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  For me, this is a jarring note in the story, in spite of Lancaster’s smugness he is also keen to spread happiness. Whatever his misdemeanours, you feel that he is a not an entirely unsympathetic person (unless you read this as a parable about US imperialism).  Even when his bitter ex-lover rejects him, she is ready to help him back to his house.  Lancaster’s character is brittle and proud and his progress through the pools is objectively monitored by seasonal deterioration.  Are the characters at the end too harsh with him?  It depends on the interpretation you give it.  Lancaster’s acting throughout is gripping.  You could read this film as a parable about growing up or about America’s supposed loss of innocence after the Kennedy assassination and about Vietnam.  This film also has the feeling of a nice dream journey into a nightmare.  As he walks away from the garden party the guests line up to see him off.  In the countryside we see the reliable old standby of cinematic dream symbolism: the horse galloping free.

This is a sixties film so it features that other stereotype of that decade: the embittered alcoholic wife/mistress.  At the start the characters talk like Stepford alpha men and women.  People say what’s required of them to sustain the facile optimism of money and high status.  At the end people are cynical and bitter but in a very literal minded way.  The story should evince hope even in the squalid circumstances of comparative poverty but it doesn’t do this.  I think it would be a better film if the moral possibilities in the story had been pursued.  Among the truth telling cynics, Lancaster has the opportunity to get through guilt and remorse to achieve some kind of expiation but it doesn’t happen.  We see a sinister squalor at the end but we don’t know the extent of his culpability.  Those victims of his arrogance achieve vengeance, and like them the film gloats over this person stripped of allusions shown to be living in lies.  The film’s mercilessly non redemptive end is very bleak.  A dark but absorbing film.

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Tree of Life

Tree of Life posterSynopsis

Set in Waco Texas in the 1950s.  It starts out with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain learning about the death of their son.  We go forward to Sean Penn thinking about his past.  He is an architect adrift in the steel and glass of the 21st century.  We then hear about grace and nature from the mother.  We learn about lessons in spiritual disinterest from the Book of Job.  We get voice-overs talking in prayer or poetry.  Then we see shots of the origins of the universe.  A dinosaur puts its foot on a sick dinosaur’s neck and then releases its foot.  Then we see domestic life:  Brad Pitt, the strict patriarch bullying his two sons.  They go to church, we see Pitt at work.  We see a man having a fit, people are arrested by the police. Pitt goes abroad and the two boys play and enjoy freedom.  Pitt then loses his job. and acquires some wisdom in life.  Then we get to see Sean Penn wandering on a beach with lots of people, his younger self and family, set to religious music.

Criticism

THe special effects of this film are by Douglas Trumbull who did the effects for 2001 and there have been comparisons between Mallick’s film and Kubrick’s.  At this point it’s interesting to compare the two film makers who have achieved cult status.  If you are a film director who wants to achieve  this status, you make a film once every few years (in Mallick’s case it’s five films in nearly forty years).  You become an eccentric recluse, you don’t give interviews but you deliver the odd aphorism or oracular statement.  You only talk to favoured journalists and critics.  You cover your film in secrecy and your perfectionism is legendary.  You always go way beyond your budget because your film is years in the making.  Your tantrums are famous and every big name actor wants to work with you.  Kubrick and Mallick share these lovable traits.  Because they both use Douglas Trumbull on the cosmic imagery in 2001 and Tree of Life, one can compare the two.  2001 has been called an algebra of metaphors, it’s all quite coherent but in Tree of Life the symbolism doesn’t work, it lacks poetic progression and consistency.  We get a juxtaposition of cosmic scenes, sea life and volcanoes.  Then we get hand held camera close ups of this Waco Texas family sometimes living the American Dream:  all dreamy soft peaks into the bliss of Christian family life until the tyrannical patriarch ruins it all by providing the film with its concession to mere drama.  It’s as if David Attenborough’s Life on Earth footages are mixed up with suburban camcorder scenes.  Where is the tree of life?  They plant a small tree and that’s all.  I expected some sort of thematic development around a biological or symbolic tree but it didn’t turn up.  At the end of the film we get the embarrassing kitsch of Sean Penn strolling around a beach with lots of extras who look like they’ve strolled out of a Mormon service.  These images of nature and religious mysticism  look like commercials for insurance or cars.  People have satisfied looks on their faces as they reach out to one another.  The voice overs seem to be poetic but sound like pretentious whisperings from some failed pop music lyricist.

The characters are ‘American Dream’ stalwarts and on that count are highly suspect.   Brad Pitt may play a brute but he’s supposed to be fundamentally decent because he’s a hardworking Christian.  Interestingly, his hokey piety does not prevent him from being very cynical about his fellow human beings.  The mother is by contrast a gentle soul who looks like an Anglo-Saxon Madonna.  We see her giving water to convicts later floating round a tree for Pete’s sake.  Sean Penn as Pitt’s grown up son is exiled in the steel and glass Babylon of corporate worldliness and wants us to know we took the wrong turning from the Edenic bliss of innocent family life.  He looks like a tapir with haemorrhoids and at the end of the film.  I hoped he’d walk into the sea and not come back.  The kids are casting from the Bible, one’s a goody and the other is like dad.  Mallick knew he had to have drama so he took the easy option of dad being the domestic tyrant.

Mallick is a Christian and his view of nature seems interestingly ambivalent.  He does not share the gnostic view that nature is evil but he does think it is implacably cruel and we must show our humanity by rising above its’ assaults  There are moments of mercy:  the dinosaur, withdrawing its foot from the neck of a wounded dinosaur, the fiery cosmic forces that become grasses and flowers, and sea life but it’s sentimentalized as well.  As in Badlands and the Thin Red Line we get syrupy music celebrating National Geographic prettiness.

After seeing this film a couple of times I’ve come to regard it as a self indulgent celebration of literal mindedness.  We know nature is immense and beautiful, and life is mysterious, but Mallick takes a whole film and a lot of preachy nonsense to tell us so.  Full marks for attempting things that most film makers might not dare to do, but it still fails.  Its visionary ambitions are undermined by folksy Sunday school triteness, so I can understand those French audiences laughing at this and walking out of the film.  I weakened at moments as I hoped I would be watching a masterpiece, but really it’s all pants.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man posterSynopsis

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film of his, which he says is stranger than fiction.  It’s based on the real life story of Manny Ballestrero who is a musician and family man who is wrongly accused of armed robbery.  He is identified as an armed robber by the woman who works in the insurance office he visits.  The police parade him before robbery victims, and they are all fairly certain that Fonda who plays Manny Ballestrero is the culprit.  He is taken to the station, his writing is compared with the robber’s, he is identified in the parade as the criminal.  We see him subject to the Kafka-like alienation of the prison procedures, we see his world cave in, and his 1950’s ‘American dream’ wife go to pieces and be admitted into psychiatric care.  The real robber is found, Fonda’s wife recovers her mental health, and the woman who did for him looks ashamed.

Criticism

This is a black and white 1956 film, and along side Twelve Angry Men we see Fonda playing the martyr to weakness and stupidity.  Interestingly, we only know of Fonda’s innocence because Hitchcock tells us so at the beginning.  His point is not to make a thriller whose outcome leaves us in suspense, but to show us the effects of wrongful accusation.  The effects, of course, are usually psychologically,socially, economically and morally devastating.

This was made during the paranoid 50’s, what with its ‘un-American activities’ conjured up by McCarthy and the threat of nuclear war, but there is an ironic inversion here:  instead of Fonda being a threat to citizens, they are a threat to him.  Their well intentional stupidity is destructive and alarming, as was the paranoia of the anti-communist hysteria.  I’d like to think Hitchcock was attacking such mean minded politics, but maybe not.  Interestingly his leading lady, Vera Miles, is ‘Mrs American dream’ at the start of the film, then she goes insane, unable to take the ostracism her husband suffers.  Whatever Hitchcock’s real intentions, he was exposing the fragility of the American dream.  It was okay as long as people behaved themselves; the paradise of the new washing machines could be easily upset.  This was the era of the Douglas Sirk film.

We see the slow pressure working on Fonda’s own sanity and self respect:  the suspicion surrounding him, the writing tests that seem to confirm his guilt, the identity parades all turning the screw on his self doubt.  Hitchcock is much better at showing ‘ordinary’ people trying to hold on to their sanity than he is at cod psychology in films such as Psycho and Marnie.

Anthony Quayle plays the lawyer defending Fonda, and you can see that he doubts Fonda but tries to battle his doubt.  This accentuates the loneliness of the accused person, if there’s so much accusation, surely there is something in it?  This is the nearest that Hitchcock gets to the genius of The Trial by Kafka.  Only Fonda, and we the onlookers, know that he is innocent, the implacable righteousness of his accusers is as terrifying as the intractable enigma of The Trial and its agents.  They are well intentioned people who think they are doing good but their very conscientiousness is appalling in its sense of right.  This fascinates Hitchcock, the process over which we  have no control and how it manipulates us:  it can be a psychotic’s mind, a flock of birds gone mad, people caught up in Cold War spy games.  Remember the mistaken identity of James Stewart  in North by North West and his helplessness in the face of sinister manipulation.  None of this is as bad as a real life case of mistaken identity.  Hitchcock traces the disintegration of this victims’ life with almost sadistic respect for detail, made worse by the fact that we don’t know the exact ending.  Mistaken identity or the search for an authentic identity are big factors in Hitchcock films like in Vertigo and there is no consoling redemption through love.  The Fonda victim is vindicated by accident, he could have easily gone to jail battling the indifference and suspicion of his lawyer and family.

This is Hitchcock at his best and yet amazingly is one of his least known films.  Note how the camera lingers accusingly on Fonda’s face like it did through the window of the hotel room at the start of Psycho or in Rear Window. We know Fonda is innocent but the camera wants to catch at any weakening of resolve, or at any doubt of self in the face of consensual slander abetted by the sort of bureaucratic processes which ensure the guilt of the accused.  An uneasy film, and scarier than the fictions of his other works of this period.  Hitchcock’s gaze is full on in this movie.

 

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