Tuesday, January 24, 2006


An interesting moment in Robert Breer's ostensibly atypical Pat's Birthday (1962), which follows Claes Oldenburg and friends as they celebrate Pat's birthday ... we see an idyllic scene at a swimming hole, a waterfall, friends & children, a relaxed time. And I think I realized something about the rhetorical functions, in American film at least, of the 'swimming hole' and the 'swimming pool.' The hole can be a private place (as it is for Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon) or a group one (Pat's Birthday), but it seems to serve many of the same functions regardless--it's peaceful, restful, primordial, upfront, it's where we "get away" from life's harassments.

The pool, on the other hand, is just another source of life's harassments, its inanities (even when, as Herman Blume and Benjamin Braddock try to do in Rushmore and The Graduate, respectively, one wants to use it to escape). The pool, when private, is a conspicuous sign of prestige--the great Jason Robards, as Al Capone, shows up on his Miami vacation in his swimming pool in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (Roger Corman, 1969). When public, the pool is a veritable factory of hijinks, impersonality, manufactured emotion--above all, performance. Robards' Capone, in fact, has reporters over to his poolside as he gives a very 'performative' interview! (And, also, in contrast, in Pat's Birthday Breer has several shots of a public swimming pool--in long shot, impersonal, wearing none of the lyrical beauty of the swimming hole scene.) One can think of the great sequence in The Cameraman where Buster Keaton struggles to clothe himself properly and then, once in the pool, to keep his date--or one may also recall the plucky kids in The Sandlot (maybe only a movie people my age and younger know at all!?) among whom one, bearing a crush on a blonde lifeguard, schemes to get a CPR kiss by faking his own drowning, since the pool is apparently no place for honest admissions ...

Reese Witherspoon's swimming hole is frank, earnest. The swimming hole is where one can be naked, where a glimpse (or more) of bare skin asserts some innocence and straightforwardness of its own. (Maybe it takes us back to The Garden.) If it's natural water, flowing water, if it's surrounded by trees, one "goes back," or represents a "going back," like Jodie Foster's semi-civilized Nell, or one's secrets are revealed, as with the young man and young woman in Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, '81). Images from the opening of Sternberg's Blonde Venus flash through my head, too--but I can't bring back the narrative context!

The swimming pool sees nakedness only when it's "naughty," that is, one does not emphasize anything natural about it--it's a performative opportunity, as the notoriously showy pool fucking in Showgirls (not to mention John McNaughton's Wild Things, 1998) demonstrates. Or if there's no performance per se, there's another kind of 'imaginary' at work here--like the famous Phoebe Cates fantasy sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

And just to make myself clear: I'm not trying to celebrate the 'swimming hole' and damn the 'swimming pool'--I'm just trying to clarify the connotative spaces these two settings tend to make for themselves. (And the "tend" is important--I make no claims to clear, cut-and-dried divisions here!) It's the same cultural, rooted ordering system which presumably assigns "honesty" to the hole and "performance" to the pool, if I'm even correct to propose these assignments. Perhaps I'll get comments from unconvinced readers with a laundry list of exceptions to disprove my 'rule.' Which would be OK, as at least it would mean I won't go on enamored of my own crackpot idea.

All of this ignores the figure of 'the ocean,' which is something else altogether, but that's OK because it's clear that this is anything but a rigorous stream of thoghts ...


girish said...

Zach, there's a wonderful swimming-pool "performance within a performance" in Haneke's Code Unknown, but I guess we can talk more about that on Feb 13, when we blog about it.

Anonymous said...

The naked-swimming in SIRENS feels free and shameless, but...with an air of didacticism. (Not in a bad way, it's part of the film's arthouse snobs v. slobs concerns.)


Matt said...

Excellent post, Zach. I have four very hastily written thoughts:

Firstly, I am reminded of the pool scenes in Raging Bull, which are idyllic, but in a highly subjective, manufactured way, quite possibly a product of memory. Vickie is at once both innocent and playing at innocence; the pool is in some ways the city's equivalent of the waterhole, but it doesn't lose any of its pool-ness all the same. These scenes posit a continuum between the idyllic (or natural) place of water on one axis and the performative (or manufactured) place of water on the other, not two poles that never touch.

Secondly, I hesitate to use the word 'idyllic' to describe the waterhole and suggest 'natural' as a substitute. This might not be as relevant a distinction in the States as it is in Australia, where the waterhole (or billabong) is understood by our filmmakers, not as a perfect, idyllic place, but rather as intensely ambivalent one, at once both beautiful and threatening. Anonymous cites Sirens, which obviously tows the natural-as-idyll line; I would offer, as counterpoints, two scenes from Australian cinema that start from the premise of natural-as-idyll and uncover it as naïve and fatal. The first is the scene in Crocodile Dundee where Sue, filling up her water bottle from the shore of a billabong, is attacked by a saltwater crocodile, which lurked (like all nasties do) under the (idyllic) surface. The second is from Sue Brooks' Japanese Story, but I won't tell you what happens in that one (it's worth seeing). Thus I would suggest that our continuum isn't just between the natural place of water and the manufactured place of water, but the natural-idyllic and natural-threatening places of water (the natural-ambiguous place of water) and the manufactured-idyllic and manufactured-hostile places of water (the manufactured-ambiguous place of water). The ocean, you're right, will undoubtedly complicate matters.

Thirdly, it's important to note how the depictions of these places of water (or at least the ones that posit the place of water as some kind of ideal) perpetuate a kind of myth: that of the place of water as somewhat egalitarian space. Yeah, sure--egalitarian if you're white! In Australia, this myth of the idyllic place of water is far more relevant to the beach (as opposed to ocean) than it is to the pool or waterhole (as so many bloggers pointed out at the time of last month's race riots at Cronulla Beach in Sydney), but it remains relevant, I think, to these other places as well. The fact of the matter is that for many people--the so-called Otherly-complexioned of society--there is little chance of natural- and manufactured-ambiguous places of water turning out to be idyllic, egalitarian places of water--they are almost always threatening, hostile places, places where they're not welcome. The idyllic, egalitarian place of water is a reality only for one strata of society, and thus not a reality at all.

Finally, in Australia The Sandlot was known as The Sandlot Kids, and by God, I loved that movie!

dvd said...

"The swimming hole is where one can be naked, where a glimpse (or more) of bare skin asserts some innocence and straightforwardness of its own."

A more complex example of this can be found in Roeg's Walkabout.

Summing up the other side of the argument quite well - in both title and content - is Ozon's Swimming Pool.

My brothers and I were Sandlot devotees, back when it was playing at the dollar theater down the street from our house.

Matt said...

I feel a third group blog orgy coming on...

Gabe Klinger said...

Swimming pools:

-the great scene in the health club in Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE
-Juliette Binoche swimming back and forth in BLUE
-Monteiro as oddball swimming instructor in GOD'S COMEDY
-An entire sixth of Jon Jost's 6 EASY PIECES

Swimming holes:

- an 80's movie I'm having trouble remembering about blue collar kids in a college town (what the hell is this called)...
- Ennis and Jack in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN -- nekked!
- Simpsons episode where Homer revisits a traumatic childhood memory (the one where he screams uncontrollably)

Mubarak Ali said...

Frank Perry's chlorine-soaked, The Swimmer (1968), is a pretty complex anti-example of the 'pool-as-performance' theory (the only one I can think of!). Burt Lancaster sheds more than his swimming trunks, as his performance becomes more emotionally naked with every successive neighbour's pool in his metaphoric quest to reach 'home'.

aaron w graham said...

If I'm not mistaken, the seemingly forever love scene in Eastwood's PLAY MISTY FOR ME takes place in, or near, an idyllic-natural waterhole. Though, really, your choice example of Mulligan's THE MAN IN THE MOON really incapsulates the serenity of such a place.

Mark Asch said...

Gabe- if you're thinking of what I think you're thinking of, the blue collar boys and their swimmin' hole were in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, in Breaking Away (which was actually '79, but whatever).

(Oh, and Zach- I feel like we may have had a class or two together back in room 656... Ozu, maybe?)

Tuwa said...

private pool:
unwanted prestige and alienation: Pink Floyd's The Wall
inherited prestige, alienation, and a cry for affection: Harold and Maude

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for comments and suggestions, everyone.

Sirens, Crocodile Dundee, Japanese Story, Walkabout (and if we were to include the ocean, Age of Consent would have to count too) ... someone should do a whole new blog post altogether on swimming in Australian films. I can't remember, are there any good billabong scenes in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith?

I've never seen 6 Easy Pieces, Japanese Story, Swimming Pool (though I melt like butter for Ludivine Sagnier), The Wall, The Swimmer, or Breaking Away. And Aaron, I can't for the life of me remember the scene you're referring to in Play Misty--this is one of those times when having a sieve memory like mine can be really annoying. (I've got the tape sitting around somewhere, perhaps I'll do some fast-fwd research.)

Mark--yeah I'm pretty sure we at least had the Ozu class together. Excellent blog you run, I'll be sure to link to it when I get my own domain name up (soon, soon).

Gabe, Vigo's superb Taris exists above and beyond this kind of rhetoric.

Matt, provocative comments. Quickly, about race, water, and the beach--this was immediately relevant to me when I recently (and fiiiiinally) caught up with City of God (Gabe, I'm in your corner when it comes to the "merits" of this film) and for a while there's a tug-of-war, of course, between friends on the beach: the black protagonist, the brown girl, the white kid ... of course Brazil has a complex racial culture that your humble blog author can't begin to opine about.

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Do you know all the films of that time?

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