The Swimmer

No film channels late-summer existential malaise quite like The Swimmer, one of the strangest and most arresting films to come out of late-1960s Hollywood.

Awash in high-art pretensions and tacky period affectations–literary pedigree, quasi-psychedelic transition montages, a heavy-handed Marvin Hamlisch score, unsubtle symbolism, untamed melodramatic gestures–The Swimmer somehow survived a troubled production (after clashing with Burt Lancaster, director Frank Perry was pushed off of the project after assembling his first cut, with Sydney Pollack reshooting portions of the film and assembling it into its finished form) to become a vessel for the failures of an American generation, or at least some of them. Set in the midst of wealthy Connecticut, The Swimmer offers a portrait of a masculine mind in crisis, disconnected from time and social structures, frantically tumbling into the liminal regions between hope and delusion and despair. Everything about The Swimmer could easily ring false if it all wasn’t so sincere.

That sincerity extends directly from Lancaster, who gives the greatest performance of his career as Ned Merrill, a proto-Don Draper without any of Draper’s cynicism. Lancaster’s Merrill wholly believes in his own mythology. Lancaster looks and speaks like a god from Olympus; if anyone might speak a daydream into existence, it would be him. But he’s more akin to Sisyphus than he is to one of the Olympians, trying to achieve the impossible through sheer will, only to find that his feats of strength and determination lead him right back to where he started.

But to analyze The Swimmer is considerably less interesting than actually watching it. Its observations about class and race and gender and generational shifts sit on the surface; what makes them powerful are the spiritual energies that flow beneath them. To describe The Swimmer‘s dramatic conceits would fail to capture anything of the film’s uncanniness, in the way it makes its own literariness fluid and vital, in the way it finds both hope and sadness in the promise of summer sunlight, in the way Lancaster’s blue eyes strain to see a world that does not and cannot exist.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Time is just memory mixed with desire…”
~ Tom Waits, “The Part You Throw Away”

Languorous and fluid, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood floats along currents of longing that seem to come to us straight from deep in Tarantino’s psyche, a place where the Los Angeles of 1969 is real and alive and appealing and sad. Broadly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Hollywood the Dreamland and Hollywood the Reality and the impossibility of reconciling the two. Or, to take a different perspective, it’s about the impossibility of Tarantino reconciling himself to himself.

Much has been made of the film’s rewriting of history, but I think to receive the climax of this film in the way that you might receive the ending of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained completely misses the way this film, unlike those, goes to great pains to set-up its resolution differently; in Basterds and Django, their resolutions were the natural outgrowth of a clear build towards a narrative goal, an expression of catharsis that the entire film had been building toward. This film has no such clarity in trajectory; it ambles about from scene to scene, sequence to sequence, before the finale arrives. When it does arrive, it does so with a sharp tonal shift, and, unlike the prior films, goes out of its way to underline just where this film is breaking away from history. In case you missed his maneuvers before, Tarantino concludes his motion picture with the plaintive, ghostly strains of Maurice Jarre’s cue, “Miss Lily Langtry” (lifted from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), before “Once Upon a Time…” appears on the screen.

Some commentators have lamented that Tarantino isn’t interested in Sharon Tate as a person, but Sharon Tate the Human Being could never be reanimated by a filmmaker, and Tarantino himself is assuredly aware of that fact. One of the film’s most memorable scenes presents us with Margot Robbie-as-Sharon Tate watching the real Sharon Tate on-screen in a film, celebrating the real Sharon Tate while clarifying that whoever Margot Robbie is playing is very much not the real deal. He applies a similar exaggeration to every other “real life” figure that appears in this movie (among them, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee): these figures are the screen icons that live in Tarantino’s mind, not the persons who live and breathed and died.

Protagonist Rick Dalton, a second-rate actor in the midst of a breakdown, is directly fictionalized, but he, too, is a creation drawn from the biographical details of real-world also-rans that filled Hollywood, as is his stuntman and best-friend, Cliff Booth. Theirs is a dysfunctional, broken bromance, a struggle to navigate a dysfunctional, evolving Hollywood by clinging on to each other. The Hollywood they navigate is Tarantino’s Hollywood: a place alive with the pop culture miscellany that Tarantino adores. Real life intrudes on the nostalgia: this is the home of alcoholics and maybe-murderers, haunted by the dark menace that lives in the abandoned film sets on the fringes of Los Angeles, but it’s also the place where people could drive in cars with the radio blaring and might end up at a theater or drive-in with a luminous marquee that happened to be showing a beat-up film print of a Spaghetti Western. The latter mightn’t balance out the former, but that doesn’t change the depth of love Tarantino has for it.

The fantasy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fantasy that the also-rans of culture that Tarantino cares about–not just the actors that nobody talks about anymore, but the shows and old theaters and even the radio commercials–actually matter. But in the end, it’s just a daydream, as flimsy as daydreams are. Reality is what it is, and no level of imagination can change it. That won’t stop Tarantino from trying.

A Unified Theory of the Daniel Craig Bond Films

Due to other commitments, my ongoing “Facts of Death” series, in which I laboriously examine the four existing James Bond films that feature Daniel Craig as the deadly spy, is on hold for the foreseeable future. However, seeing as production on Bond 25 (its official title is yet to be determined) is underway with a planned release in April 2020, I wanted to share with you my reading of the overarching trajectory of the Daniel Craig era to date.

For all of its fluctuations in tone and aesthetics, the Daniel Craig films have a fairly consistent sense of its protagonist’s psychological crises and construct a relatively consistent dramatic and thematic arc around it. The fundamental concern at the heart of the Daniel Craig Bond films is the notion of family, or, rather, the lack of it. In these films, “James Bond” is not a stable identity but a kind of constructed persona adopted by a man in a state of psychological and emotional turmoil, and the films dramatize its protagonist’s attempts to reconcile himself to himself.

In Casino Royale, we meet James Bond, one of the many “maladjusted young men” with a death wish swept up into the secret service to give his life on behalf of his country. An orphan with great ambivalence about authority and mistrust of personal relationship, Bond relies on MI6 as a surrogate family. Judi Dench’s M serves as the pivotal mother figure that he both rebels against and whom he seeks to impress. In the course of Casino Royale, Bond meets Vesper Lynd and contemplates abandoning his surrogate family to establish a life with her, and then recoils when that possibility is taken from him.

Quantum of Solace deals with the aftershocks of that loss, and over the course of that adventure, Bond meets his double, Camille. She, too, has lost her family. Together, they wander a family-less wilderness of grief and violence, and neither is able to wholly reconcile themselves to it or to each other. At the climax of Quantum of Solace, they find that the pain is too great to allow them to build a connection (family) with one another, and so Bond reintegrates himself with his surrogate MI6 family and once again submits to his “mother,” M.

Skyfall finds Bond questioning his submission to that surrogate family as, following a perceived betrayal at the hands of his “mother,” he becomes entangled in a battle with one of M’s previous surrogate sons. The course of the battle forces him to revisit the formative trauma of his youth, the death of his parents, which bleeds over into the battle of the present. He defeats his “sibling” and proves himself to be the “true” son, but the battle still costs him his mother.

Not unlike how Quantum of Solace traced the shockwaves of trauma from Bond’s loss of Vesper, Spectre follows where Skyfall left off, depicting Bond as grappling with the loss of M and the subsequent corruption of the secret service in her absence. Bond pursues her last wish as he hunts down the mysterious organization that orchestrated her demise. That quest for answers brings Bond into contact with another person in need of a family (“orphan” Madeleine Swann falls in love with Bond in part because he is a representation of her father) and brings him face to face with his archnemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Here, Blofeld is quite literally made into a sibling for Bond, a kind of onetime brother for the young, traumatized Bond, who, perceiving Bond as a rival, effectively orphaned himself and attempted to create himself anew. Having reconstructed his own origin story, this Blofeld overtly relishes the opportunity to rob Bond of any possibility of establishing a new family with Madeleine. At the end of Spectre, Bond triumphs over Blofeld by abandoning the role of state-sponsored assassin, leaving his surrogate MI6 family to build a new life with Madeleine.

Where Bond 25 proceeds from here, who knows? What little we know about Bond 25 suggests that his tranquil retirement with Madeleine will be short-lived. But, given the trajectory so far, I have a suggestion: if Bond 25 is to continue this arc, might it not make sense to see Bond become a parent? This has some level of precedent in the source material; Bond fathered a child in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, although Bond was unaware that his child existed.

Party Girl

Filmmaker Nicholas Ray had a singular talent for distilling desperation into bravura cinema, and his 1958 feature, Party Girl, warps the structures of Hollywood spectacle into a searing portrait of anxious romance. A companion piece to Johnny Guitar that trades the trappings of the Western for 1930s gangster narrativeParty Girl depicts the fragile romance between a showgirl and a mob lawyer, each desperate to escape the dead-end lives they’ve built for themselves.

Party Girl shares some of the DNA of the Cinemascope movie musical, but its core impulses come from the sweaty anxieties of film noir. Party Girl‘s introductory chapter, which shifts from a luminous showgirl number to a menacing mob party to a brutal suicide, anchors all that follows in a state of existential panic and dread. Cyd Charisse’s dance numbers recur throughout the picture are as vividly staged as any to emerge from classic Hollywood, but Ray and his collaborators twist them from crowd-pleasing spectacle to depictions of dangerous desire and entrapment. Charisse’s Vicki Gaye survives by dangling herself before tigers.

For all of its many luminously photographed sequences, the scene that left me reeling is an exterior scene set at a Chicago drawbridge sheathed in darkness, its blue steel beams towering over the film’s lovers, its moving machinery looking like it could crush them at any moment. Speaking with Cyd Charisse’s  Robert Taylor, playing mob lawyer Thomas Farrell, talks mournfully of the foolish machismo of youth and the agonies of aging. Together, they are two people lost in an inhuman city, dreaming of being two different people in some different place.

Our Cultural Babel

Globalization has not made (nor can it ever make) a uniform, universal culture, but, in 2019, is it truly possible to conceive of a city or town or neighborhood functioning as a thriving cultural space with a relatively firm cultural boundary?

I’m not sure that it is, at least not in the technologically developed world. In this, the Internet Age, culture is more complicated and ephemeral than ever. As we now have the luxury of building communities beyond those in our physical vicinity, we now belong to overlapping communities, many of them virtual. Even when culture now has some kind of physical, localized manifestation, it is the expression not of a singular, geographical culture, but functions as a shared reference point between overlapping, decentralized cultures.

Celebrity

Celebrity is an inherently toxic phenomenon, but YouTube celebrity is one of its worst manifestations.

It’s a form of celebrity for which “selling out” is effectively impossible, because it is a kind of celebrity that can only come into being through the mechanics of “selling out.”