Into the Blue

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wimming pools confound reality; that’s part of their appeal. I’ve skinny-dipped in pools with people who I would never get naked with in any other social setting. For a game of chicken, nearly nude straight men will sit on each other’s shoulders in a pool, their thighs wrapped tightly around one another’s heads. Playfully groping your peers in pools is almost mandatory. And sex in pools is the ultimate in reality-razing — think Elizabeth Berkley’s epileptic intercourse in Showgirls. This level of sexual hedonism can only be absorbed through the skin while splashing around in a swimming pool.


The Swimmer, the 1968 surrealist film based on a John Cheever story, makes hay of the phony glamour of swimming-pool culture. Burt Lancaster stars as an aging sexpot whose enviable life with his loving family has vanished. He’s had an affair, he’s bankrupt, and many of his friends have abandoned him. The film opens poolside, with Lancaster at a neighbors’ house, when he realizes that all of the pools in the neighborhood form a virtual chlorinated river that leads all the way to his house; he dubs it the Lucinda River, “in honor of my wife,” and whispers, peering deep into the middle distance, “I could swim home.” And he does, hopping from one pool to the next, conversing with increasingly hostile neighbors along the way, each interaction revealing another piece of the story of his tragic downfall. When he reaches his old, now-empty house, he pounds on the door and wails, then curls into a ball on the stoop and wails some more. It’s a scene so daringly preposterous, so amazingly overacted, you have to admire its chutzpah.

I grew up on a street with only one swimming pool. It was the neighborhood’s vortex; we drifted to it as if drawn by the gravitational pull of its chemical-liquid core. It belonged to the D’Angelos, an Italian family who everyone liked. The D’Angelos always seemed to me, I don’t know — enhanced. Somehow smarter and more stable, like they existed on a higher plane. Now I know why: it was that pool.

It wasn’t just that it kept us cool through the Massachusetts summer mugginess. It was that it lent a sparkly sliver of phantasm to our little wooded village. At the pool, we were pure class, the type of people who break out the martini shakers at noon, Cotton

Lancaster’s neighbors are drunk on leisure. There are no real enemies at their pools, because there are no real friends.

Club on the hi-fi, women laughing on the chaise lounges, men smoking cigars and swapping golf scores.

The Swimmer helped pioneer the indict-the-suburbs genre that became fantastical in the ’70s (Over the Edge), ironic in the ’80s (The ‘burbs) and self-righteous in the ’90s (American Beauty). It suggested that despite the tranquility conveyed by the crystalline water, suburban swimming pools represented the status anxiety that simmered between so-called friends in a luxury suburb. But this movie could take place anywhere — it’s about the fragility of relationships in general. Our lives are filled with brittle egos that require consistently delicate handling. I remember my very first boyfriend in high school dumped me because we went to a bar one night and I got flirted with more than he did. He said we should “talk later,” left the bar and I never heard from him again. Status anxiety: the bar was our suburb, the flirtation my swimming pool. I might have done the same thing if I’d had a few drinks and was feeling insecure enough.

In The Swimmer, this sort of resentment is everywhere. The town is awash in bad blood. When Lancaster cheats on his wife, his family leaves him. Then the neighbors who were friends with his wife turn their backs on him as well. The breakup drives him into bankruptcy, and he loses his wealthier friends. He’s forced into the public community swimming pool, but finds that his old friends there — the ones he cut loose when he moved to the fancy suburb — don’t want him back either. Suddenly he’s adrift, all because of a single fling with the svelte little number down the lane.

Cheever’s story is an allegory, heavy on the symbolism, and there are scenes that are so steeped in ham-handed metaphor that you honestly can’t tell if the director is winking. No one but Lancaster, the sand-covered beefcake who snogged Deborah Kerr on the beach in From Here to Eternity, could have brought precisely the overwrought, irony-free Hollywood cheese that this role required. There’s a scene in which he and one of his neighbors are running through an equestrian ring and literally jumping the horse hurdles as triumphant orchestral music swells in the background, shot with total sincerity.

The pools are the film’s heaviest symbols, representing black holes near which reality cannot exist. They are zones of total inanity, submerging all unpleasantries with highballs and empty chatter. Lancaster is ejected from the pools of neighbors who care enough about his wife to be upset with him. But the neighbors who value witty repartee and indulgent caprice above true human relationships — the swimming pooliest of the neighbors — welcome him over. They’re drunk on leisure; there are no real enemies at their pools, because there are no real friends.

Lancaster’s broad, thrusting strokes as he glides his way across each pool are filmed in intimate close up. The ease with which he thrives in this foreign element underscores his virility. He doesn’t like the ladder — he hauls himself out of the pool with his knotty triceps. And he never entirely dries; he’s always still slick from his last swim as he plunges into the next pool, inciting his female neighbors to titter and flirt like aging bridesmaids. (Just to note: Like so many middle-aged male sex symbols in the ’60s, Burt Lancaster was sort of crazy looking — kind of muscled but ultimately saggy, teeth the size of dice, unsettlingly tan.) The relentless flirtation between Lancaster and the women is both wholesomely playful and lecherous. The husbands don’t even seem to mind — after all, they’re at the pool, where nothing is real. It’s Monopoly money and consequence-free morning cocktails.

But what The Swimmer teaches is that reality can only be suspended for so long. At each successive swimming pool, the neighbors

The pools are zones of total inanity, submerging all unpleasantries with highballs and empty chatter.

become more antagonistic, Lancaster becomes more drunk and that bad-blood just gets thicker. At the third pool, a doe-eyed teen daughter of one of the neighbors tells Lancaster she had a crush on him when she was a little girl. Naturally, he invites her to join him in his swimming adventure. Naturally, she agrees. And naturally, things become inappropriate — he makes a move and she freaks. Later, as he passes through the pool of two eccentric nudists, they refuse to lend him money, and we learn that Lancaster’s not only broke, he’s in debt with his friends, only adding to the umbrage. The final pool belongs to the woman who we learn was the mistress from the affair that wrecked his marriage. But this fantasy too is now over, and she boots him from the premises — but not before he swims the length of her pool, one last dip in non-reality.

Reality is not static. The most robust-seeming human relationships can fall to pieces in an instant. Who wouldn’t want to hold their nose, squeeze their eyes shut and let the climate-controlled, chemically stabilized water engulf them every once in a while?

Right before I fled my own hometown for college, our across-the-street neighbors, the Carolls, got divorced. It was a sudden sort of thing: Mr. Caroll moved out, and right away, Mrs. Caroll was remarried to a guy whom she must have already been seeing. I had no idea their marriage was even on the rocks — from the outside, it had seemed totally solid. Almost as solid as the D’Angelos’s marriage. But Mrs. Caroll’s new husband was moved in within weeks. Almost immediately, a backhoe appeared in their yard. And sure enough, soon a group of workers was digging a kidney-shaped pit, about eight feet deep, with room enough around it for a good-sized patio.  

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Will Doig writes for all sorts of fabulous and exciting magazines. He was
raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Today he lives in Brooklyn.