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THE SWIMMER (1968)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Self-deception, meaning of life

CHARACTERS: Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), Julie (former baby sitter), Kevin (young boy), Shirley (Ned’s former mistress)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR FRANK PERRY: Last Summer (1969), Mommie Dearest (1981), Compromising Positions (1985)

SYNOPSIS: “The Swimmer” is based on a short story by American writer John Cheever. Wealthy suburbanite Ned Merrill loses everything and, by blocking out the last two or so years of years of his life, he deceives himself that he hasn’t lost anything. His deception is revealed as he confronts former friends while swimming from one pool to another on his way to his old home. Some of his former acquaintances humor him, and genuinely try to help him. As he proceeds, though, he runs into people who he mistreated in the past, and now speak hostilely to him. He finally arrives at his old home, which is locked and empty.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Ned is a complex character and exhibits both good and bad qualities. On the good side, he’s handsome, articulate, upbeat and charismatic. On the bad side he is a womanizer, drank too much, spoiled his children, and is largely insensitive to the feelings of others. On balance, do we as viewers like him enough to sympathize with is situation, and, if so, why?

2. Ned’s life had collapsed as he lost his job, money, wife, home, children, mistress and friends. Is there some specific flaw in his character that ties together all of these losses?

3. The movie opens with Ned walking through the woods, wearing only his swimsuit, with no explanation of where he is coming from. How might this symbolize something about Ned himself?

4. Ned tries to lure people into his self-deceived world. For example, he invites people back to his home, signs up for a $1,000 charity event, and invites women to join him on his journey. Why does he do this?

5. Some characters knew the truth about Ned, such as the couple in the opening scene, his former mistress, and the couple in the closing scene at the public pool. How did they deal with this knowledge of Ned’s past?

6. At one point in his journey, Ned meets a young boy named Kevin, who in many ways is isolated as Ned. What are the parallels and dis-parallels between Ned and Kevin?

7. Ned tries to teach Kevin to swim in an empty pool. Kevin initially objects since it wouldn’t be real swimming. Ned responds, “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.” Kevin then complies. To what extent do Ned and Kevin think that they are really swimming?

8. In one scene at the public swimming pool, Ned is forced to take a shower beforehand, and then tries to maneuver through the overcrowded pool. What does this say about Ned’s place in the world?

9. In the original 1968 trailer to the movie, the narrator asks the question “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” Thankfully, Ned’s level of self-deception is not possible for typical people. In what more narrow areas of our lives, though, might our self-deception be as strong as Ned’s (e.g., romantic prowess, religious belief)?

10. Relativism is the view that people and/or societies create their own truths. How is The Swimmer an attack on relativism?

11. A variant of relativism is postmodernism – the view that we should reject traditionally rigid views of truth and meaning. In many ways Ned is a postmodern man. The success of his postmodernism, though, depends on his ability to live in his world of self-deception. Is it possible to embrace postmodernism without engaging in self-deception like Ned’s?

REVIEWS

This is a beautifully orchestrated film. As far as the classic tale of self-deception goes, this film, along with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Frank Leutcher by Errol Morris, really lays out the inner conflict and deception of the main character. As The Swimmer progress forward, the self-deception of Ned slowly unfolds in front of not only the viewer’s eyes, but Ned’s eyes as well. The further along one gets in this film, the more blatantly obvious it is that Ned has built an identity completely upon a foundation of lies in order to salvage some sort of personal meaning for his life. It is only when Ned encounters others whom he has wronged in the past that an external picture of him is painted. The rejection and disapproval of these people force Ned into the world of truth, a place where he isn’t very comfortable. Ned’s encounter with former friends at the pool to whom he now owes money combined with his meeting with his former mistress are the moments that push old Ned further away from the false world he has created for himself. Ned’s self-deception seems to manifest itself most fully in the “empty pool” scene. In this scene, Ned teaches an isolated little boy to swim in a waterless pool. Ned states “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.” This sentence seems to encapsulate the way in which Ned views reality. This view of his is brought crashing violently down upon him in the final scene of the film when Ned arrives “home” to find himself locked out and the house completely empty. Ned’s complete breakdown in this climax of the film signals his return to reality, but more importantly his exodus from the world of “the swimmer”. As a study of self-deception, a better film than this one would be hard to find. I strongly recommend this film to anyone interested in the integration of philosophy and film. -- Wholly Evil

“The Swimmer” was very good and well written movie that made me think about just how far we are willing to go to be comfortable with our lives and if we could go as far as Ned. I don’t think Ned is really lying to him self throughout the movie. I think he genuinely believes that everything is ok. He comes from nowhere and starts to swim in an old friend’s pool. This is his fresh start in the opening scene. We can only assume that he had been lost in the forest before hand, which I thought was an analogy for him being lost in life. Afterwards once he starts to swim home his faith in his created world is tested. Some more than others are not happy to see Ned and try to shatter his creation when they find out what is going on, but he rationalizes their mistake by simply playing dumb and assuming that there is something wrong with everyone else. The most important scene in the movie for me is when Ned meets up with Kevin and the two go swimming in a pool with no water. Kevin points out there is no water and Ned says, “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”. This one quote sums up the entire movie for me. Ned wanted so badly to return to his former life that he believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that things had never really changed, he believed this so strongly that to him it WAS true. At the end of the movie once he had waded through the pool and was publicly humiliated and after finally returning home to find it dilapidated, Ned breaks down and cries. This is supposed to be him realizing what all has happened but I think it shows just how strongly he believed. He cries not because everything everyone said about him is true now, it was always true, he starts to cry because the cooperation he needed to continue fooling himself is no longer there. He cries because even though he wants to live in this state, the world won’t let him. -- Jazzman

While the movie was decent, I really didn’t enjoy it that much. It really had no plot, wasn’t realistic at all, and ended without a real conclusion. As far as philosophical content, I was not convinced that a man could be so in denial that he couldn’t realize what his life was like. It does bring up the issue of morality. For example, most people would probably look down on the swimmer, Ned, because we learn through the story that he was a lustful, egotistical jerk, who really was insensitive to anyone’s thoughts but his own. This says something about morality: that certain actions are bad, regardless of personal feeling. Another idea was expressed at the empty pool. Ned tries to teach a boy to swim, and he says something along the lines of “anything is possible, if you believe it hard enough.” This was absurd, in my opinion. That is like saying I can fly, simply because I want to more than anyone else in the world. Certainly, if this was an expression of another flaw in the character of Ned, I applaud the director. But since I assume we are supposed to side with the main character of the story, this is an absurd idea, just another cling to a relativist ideal. However, one jump in the right direction, is the ending. Supposedly he is awoken from his “deception” state, and returned to the real world when he realizes his home is gone. This seems to be an attack against relativism by showing, like Hilary and Jackie, that the truth is still there. Whether Ned wanted to believe he was the idiot everyone thought he was or not, the fact remains that he was. I applaud the movie for trying to show that. – The Apostate

Frank Perry strangely directs the Swimmer, which is a 1968 film. This film, which is based on a short story by John Cheever, deals with the story of a man that has mentally blocked out the past two or so years of his life. However, the director does not state this out-right, he allows the movie viewer to gradually infer this through out the course of the movie. I think that this aspect of the movie was very stupid because I had no idea what the hell was wrong with this guy. I think there should have been some sort of glimpse of his previous life at some point in the movie, something along the lines of a flashback . That would have helped a lot. The movie deals with self-deception as the main character tried to make a ‘river’ of his neighbors’ swimming pools. That was pretty weird too. The main character was unbelievably enthusiastic about swimming, perhaps this is what made him able to mentally block out the past few years of his life. As he shows up at each swimming pool the neighbors gradually become more and more disapproving of him showing up. At the first house the owners seemed slightly confused at his presence, but willing to happily go along with it. At the last house the main character was thrown out. In the middle houses, I do not remember how many there were because the film was not very interesting overall, strange things happened. I would rate this movie a two on the scale of ten. -- Scuba-nator

I couldn’t look past my morals and conception of a normal life during this film, and I think in order to enjoy it, one would have to. It was hard to see any more than the surface story of an alcoholic low life who feels it is necessary to swim across the county in one day, and in the process, hits on a girl that is young enough to be his daughter. The dialect between them was, to say the least, humiliating. After the scene where they run around the horse track for about ten minutes, all that kept running through my head was that they really should not have filmed that scene in slow motion and I had a hard time focusing for the rest of the movie. The idea of self-deception taken to this level could be compelling, but I personally do not feel it was carried out too well. The viewer knows by the time Ned gets to the fat nudists house that something isn’t right about him, but once again, it was hard to look to the fact that he was deceiving himself when you are staring at two naked sixty-year-old people. Another problem I had with the movie was my relationship with Ned. I was not sure if I felt sorry for him or felt that he deserved what he got. By the time Ned finally reached his deserted house and found himself very alone, I just felt worn out with the plot and didn’t really care anymore about the outcome or Ned’s well being. He probably could have died by the time he reached his home and I would not have had much of an effect on me because I felt so indifferent to the character. -- Back from the Dead

“The Swimmer” was very good and well written movie that made me think about just how far we are willing to go to be comfortable with our lives and if we could go as far as Ned. I don’t think Ned is really lying to him self throughout the movie. I think he genuinely believes that everything is ok. He comes from nowhere and starts to swim in an old friend’s pool. This is his fresh start in the opening scene. We can only assume that he had been lost in the forest before hand, which I thought was an analogy for him being lost in life. Afterwards once he starts to swim home his faith in his created world is tested. Some more than others are not happy to see Ned and try to shatter his creation when they find out what is going on, but he rationalizes their mistake by simply playing dumb and assuming that there is something wrong with everyone else. The most important scene in the movie for me is when Ned meets up with Kevin and the two go swimming in a pool with no water. Kevin points out there is no water and Ned says, “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”. This one quote sums up the entire movie for me. Ned wanted so badly to return to his former life that he believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that things had never really changed, he believed this so strongly that to him it WAS true. At the end of the movie once he had waded through the pool and was publicly humiliated and after finally returning home to find it dilapidated, Ned breaks down and cries. This is supposed to be him realizing what all has happened but I think it shows just how strongly he believed. He cries not because everything everyone said about him is true now, it was always true, he starts to cry because the cooperation he needed to continue fooling himself is no longer there. He cries because even though he wants to live in this state, the world won’t let him. So this is what I thought of the movie. The movie is quite an interesting spin on a serious form of self-denial. I have to say that through out the movie I found my self trying to explain his predicament and that I personally believe that his problem was that not of identity but a mental break down. -- Downwardly Mobile


 
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