Monday, July 7, 2014

Adult swims

Our hero is, at first, conspicuously unseen. Is he a ghost? Foliage rustles and sundry wildlife go on the alert in his presence. When we finally catch sight of Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), from above, perhaps from a tree, it’s as though the camera captured his movement covertly after holding prolonged vigil, like the director was tracking Bigfoot, not a legendary film star traversing the woods in nothing but swimming trunks. But soon enough Ned strolls into the back garden of some old friends and takes a dip in their pool. After a highly peculiar opening sequence, everything assumes the semblance of normality. But it’s only semblance. The Swimmer (1968), released by Grindhouse on DVD and BD last April, is a strange, eerie movie, and it’s to the movie’s credit that the eeriest moments are those that seem most normal.

John Cheever

‘The Swimmer’ remains John Cheever’s most famous and oft-anthologized story. It was originally intended to be a novel, but was whittled down until its singular conceit was drained of all obvious symbolism and its air of desperation suffused every paragraph. Seemingly on a whim, “Neddy” decides that he’s going to swim all the way to his home by moving from one back garden pool to another—he sees the series of pools as forming a river, one he names after his beloved wife Lucinda. Chronicling Neddy’s journey, his encounters with friends, lovers and neighbours, and the many drinks he imbibes en route, the story’s balance of bizarre and banal takes on surrealist hues. Over the course of a single afternoon, the season seems to change, and Neddy’s sozzled haute bourgeois social life changes too. Cheever was a prodigious drinker, and this story’s power comes in part from the way it apprehends the confusion and memory loss that accompanies advanced alcoholism. As Olivia Laing writes in her excellent The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, published earlier this year, ‘The Swimmer’ “catches in its strange compressions the full arc of an alcoholic’s life."

Thankfully, the film of The Swimmer, directed by Frank Perry from an adaptation by his spouse and collaborator Eleanor Perry, pushes that reading no more than the story does—though the booze certainly flows. The first line of Cheever’s story: “It was one of those mid-summer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” That exact line is uttered by two different characters within the film’s first few minutes, not ominously but, rather, jocularly, while more drinks are being served. Ned’s portage through the suburban wilderness takes him through few properties where drinks aren’t being served. Many characters remark on Ned’s terrific physique—Lancaster was in his mid-50s and in great shape—and some express their attraction to him, but others are unmistakably hostile, and perhaps afraid, and demand that he leave their property for reasons Ned can’t quite understand. Or remember. “Aren’t you a little confused this afternoon?” someone asks. Lancaster is perfectly cast as this chipper, charismatic socialite. There is a colossal block behind his eyes. His smile feels as developed and maintained and for-show as his biceps. His confidence feels calculated so as to carefully disguise an inner panic. What happened the last time he met these people? What did he do? What did he miss? And where are some of his old pals?

Perry died in 1995. His body of work gives little indication of experimentalist ambitions, but The Swimmer, is a cavalcade of oblique—if dated—strategies; of punchy colours; of slow-motion flocking and fence-jumping through blurry forests to overbearing scoring; of truly weird ultra-close-ups, including one of Lancaster’s eyeball, in which he discover a horse that Ned will later race. The film is much funnier than you might expect, yet not at the expense of the story’s integrity. It glides from pool to pool, always brimming with odd surprises, is unnerving in all the right ways, and finally kind of harrowing. It’s more successful than it had any right to be, I fully recommend it, and I tip my hat to Perry for pulling it off. Still, given the particular richness of Cheever’s idea and the milieu in which his tale unfolds, I can’t help but wonder what Luis Buñuel would have done with the material.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

NYPD vs 666

The opening title card reads “Inspired by actual accounts,” which is distinct from “Based on a true story” in that it reads closer to “Somebody of indeterminate credibility claims something like this happened but mostly we made it up.” Which is understandable given that we’re watching a movie where a guy spontaneously bleeds from injuries inflicted by an invisible crown of thorns and features several incidents that could prove libellous for the NYPD. The filmmakers need to cover their collective ass. They also need to imply that what we’re seeing could’ve happened, Satan is real, and when the going gets tough you want to find yourself an hunky ex-junky Latino priest. Those guys are hard-core.  

Deliver Us From Evil takes place in 2013, a year in which New York apparently suffered constant brownouts and torrential downpours. Officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) gets a hunch one night—his partner calls this Sarchie’s “radar”—and accepts a call to investigate a domestic dispute involving a wife beater who acts like a rabid dog. The radar keeps going off over the ensuing nights and Sarchie winds up fending off large zoo animals, getting bitten by a lady who threw her kid in a ravine, witnessing an exploding corpse and befriending the aforementioned hunky ex-junky (Carlos star Édgar Ramírez), who gradually convinces Sarchie that his radar is really a God-given gift for sniffing evil and that he’ll need to confront his sinful past if he’s ever going to beat the Devil.

Sarchie is a real-life retired cop and demonologist. He co-founded the New York chapter of the New England Society of Psychic Research and has worked with the likes of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were themselves the subject of a horror movie, last year’s The Conjuring. To Bana’s credit, movie-Sarchie’s eventual conversion to belief in demonic possession is barely foreshadowed. The arc of Deliver Us From Evil, its story an amalgamation of events chronicled in Sarchie’s memoir Beware the Night, is given shape by Sarchie’s reluctant acceptance of his calling.

Which brings us to our director and co-scenarist Scott Derrickson, who I confess to finding somewhat fascinating. Following a wildly unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the haunted house movie Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil returns Derrickson, who was raised a Christian fundamentalist, to the thematic terrain of his feature debut The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a thriller-as-thesis statement exploring the mental illness versus demonic possession question and came out on the side of ambiguity and general tolerance of other people’s spiritual beliefs. That film, goofy as it was, works better than Deliver Us From Evil, which nosedives into overstatement and can’t resist a protracted operatic demon-outing climax that strains the “actual accounts” claim well past its breaking point.

Still, I feel friendly toward Evil. Derrickson’s a rare bird, both a true believer and a young director trying to navigate Hollywood—he’s said to be helming a Doctor Strange adaptation next. I think this film could have used more of the believer and less of the showman, but at least it keeps a sense of humour about itself, particularly with regards to its winking references to Poltergeist and Taxi Driver and a fun motif involving The Doors, whose music seems to follow Sarchie around. People are strange, just like the song says, so why can’t we have a morose Iraq vet-turned-house painter and lion whisperer who recites Latin and goes to work in the middle of the night made up like Alice Cooper?