The swimming pool in films
The swimming pool is a symbol of luxury and money, of having ‘made it’ in life. The poolside location has associations of summer relaxation, parties, and fun. Storytellers regularly subvert these connotations with deliberately surprising, sometimes shocking, contexts: using the swimming pool setting to signify excess, decadence, laziness, disconnection, and moral imbalance.
- In The Big Lebowski (1989) a millionaire’s wife, sunning herself by the poolside, offers the protagonist sexual gratification for $25; in this dysfunctional version of the American dream things are not what they appear to be.
- In Harper (1966) a wealthy heiress dances on a diving board as her boyfriend enjoys the sun: they are idling their time away, oblivious to the world outside of their luxurious bubble – icons of excess, living a decadent lifestyle while the less privileged struggle to pay their bills.
- In Cat People (1942, 1982) atmospheric, low key lighting turns a familiar indoor swimming pool into an alien and frightening environment. The film noir lighting and the play of reflected light from the water onto the walls and ceiling creates an enigmatic, ethereal space.
- In Poltergeist (1982) a family’s suburban home is about to be completed by the addition of a backyard swimming pool, but the hole in the ground fills with rain water and the buried corpses (from the graveyard beneath the house) rise up.
- In Final Destination 4 (2009) a series of bizarre accidents produces a scenario where a character is trapped on the floor of the swimming pool and his entrails are sucked out of his body by the pool’s pumping system.
These stories warn us that terrible things can happen, even in family-friendly environments.
The swimming pool in The Graduate (1967), is a metaphorical symbol of Benjamin Braddock’s inability to get along in the real world, he is literally out of his depth. Given a diving suit for his birthday and goaded into the water, he sinks like a stone to the bottom of the pool.
Sometimes the irony can be shocking – in Dirty Harry (1971) a woman enjoys an innocent swim in a pool (situated on an apartment block roof), but her swim is interrupted by a psychopathic killer watching her through the telescopic sights of a sniper rifle.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) begins with the lifeless body of Joe Gillis floating in the water, and Joe narrating his demise. The Swimmer (1968) is a study of self-delusion, as Ned Merrill, an apparently successful advertising man ‘swims’ his way back home through a wealthy Connecticut neighbourhood – the sad truth about his situation gradually unfolds as he progresses.
The swimming pool is also celebrated as a place of hope and comedy. In The Way, Way Back (2013) a young adult works in a water resort, and befriends a man who reluctantly becomes his mentor. The film Old School (2003) satirises The Graduate (1967) when Frank darts himself in the neck and falls into the pool, sinking to the bottom (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ playing in the background).
In Land of the Lost (2009) the time-travelling Rick Marshall ends up drinking a hallucinogenic juice in a pool with a chimp-like alien. Because, with killer dinosaurs and giant crabs on the prowl – there’s still hope. If you’ve time-travelled into a weird and terrifying dimension, the least you can expect is the consolation of a cool dip and a refreshing cocktail.
The Paris Review interviews
Since its inception in 1953, The Paris Reviewhas run interviews with authors in a series it calls ‘The Art of Fiction’. These delightful pieces, especially the ones from the mid-1950s, the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, tell of a time before the internet, an era of mostly gentlemanly sophistication, a boy’s club with chunky ink pens, Imperial paper sizes, chain-smoking, all-day drinking and the writer’s best friend, the mechanical typewriter.
The pattern for these ‘classic’ interviews began with a preface, an introductory text set in italics. This described the circumstances of the interview, the author’s home, the date(s) in which the interviewing took place, and intriguing details such as the interior of the writer’s home, office, his or her demeanour, the interviewer’s first impression of the author, and even a description of the clothing they were wearing. Graham Greene, interviewed in the spring of 1953, emphasised finding meaning in his novels not in his interview answers; he stressed the importance of ‘childhood and adolescence’ in forming ‘the writer’, whose career then becomes one of making that private world public.
Some of the replies to the interviewer’s questions are disarmingly honest. Truman Capote, for instance, is asked:
Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?
To which he replies:
Work is the only device I know of.
And there are frequent questions about writing longhand versus using a typewriter.
What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?
I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in long-hand (pencil).
The interview with Saul Bellow in 1965 took place over the summer and again later in the year – two hours a day ‘at least twice and often three times a week throughout the entire five-week period.’ He was ‘at great pains to make his ideas transparent to the interviewer, asking repeatedly if this was clear or if he should say more on the subject.’ The typescripts from the recording sessions were carefully edited ‘in pen and ink’ by Bellow. The interview locations were given as: Bellow’s apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, on a ‘Jackson Park bench’, and ‘with beer and hamburgers at a local bar’.
Jack Kerouac was forty-five when he was interviewed. His thirtieth novel had been published earlier that year. He was living with his wife and mother. The interviewer notes that the house had no telephone. Kerouac writes ‘an average of 8,000 words a sitting, in the middle of the night’, adding that, ‘I really hate to write’ – because he is forced to creep about the house while the others are sleeping.
The spring 1969 interview with John Cheever comes across much like a meeting at one of the affluent households in the first part of his short story The Swimmer, his own stone house was built in 1799 – ‘a tour of the house and grounds was obligatory’. ‘For the interview Cheever was wearing a faded blue shirt and khakis.’ The conversation immediately gets down to the important things: Cheever’s dislike of curtains and ‘television reception’. Oh, the perils of living in the countryside. Cheever changes the subject when the conversation gets around to his work. ‘Aren’t you bored with all this talk? Would you like a drink? Perhaps lunch is ready I’ll just go downstairs and check. A walk in the woods, and maybe a swim afterwards?’ Cheever has an office ‘in town’, which I’m guessing means Manhattan, not the local town. Cheever enjoys using a chainsaw to cut wood, watching television and playing backgammon. Cheever’s replies are strikingly honest and insightful. ‘Do you feel drawn to experiment in fiction…?’ To which he replies, ‘Fiction is experimentation.’ And then he adds, ‘Every sentence is an innovation.’ And when he is asked if he belongs to any literary tradition he says, ‘No.’, but then he elaborates, clarifying that American novelists are not part of a tradition. (Although they are now.)
Kurt Vonnegut’s interview was an amalgam of interviews that had taken place over the previous decade. In the seminal interview from 1976 – which has served to update the previous sessions:
He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge grey flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets.
Vonnegut’s writing desk is empty apart from a typewriter and the latest copy of Interview. Vonnegut is chain-smoking Pall Mall cigarettes, and during the interview he smokes almost a complete pack.
Joan Didion comments on the male dominated writer’s culture:
…in the late ‘50s early ‘60s – there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts.
And, she adds:
A woman who writes novels had no particular role.
While one might imagine Cheever inhabiting an affluent neighbourhood, where the gardens come with swimming pools as standard, it’s something of a shock when the interviewer turns up to working-class hero, Raymond Carver’s home, and there in the drive way is a brand-new Mercedes Benz, parked outside the pleasant suburban dwelling.
Carver writes at a desk with nothing on it except a typewriter. Very minimalist, very Zen; even though he is tired of the ‘minimalist’ label attributed to his writing.
Some of the interviewers’ preoccupations seem irrelevant or almost quaint now: the hand writing versus (the demonic) typewriter battle, the increasing (and apparently concerning) trend of authors writing journalism.
The questions can sometimes feel like traps, attempting to coerce writers into revealing themselves, or committing themselves to a particular position, one of merely passing academic interest.
Ballard is asked if he is interested in ‘cultural decadence’ and when he replies – beautifully – about a fascination with ‘drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels’ he’s threatened with ‘inviting the worst sort of psychoanalytic interpretation’. This smacks of bullshit – Ballard is simply interested in maintaining a ‘mystery I never want to penetrate’. He’s never happier than when he ‘can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels’ because it represents a paradox and a palpable loss – environments with a telling sense of something having gone wrong, no doubt. Ballard talks about the preliminary work that goes into his novels. For High Risehe wrote a 25,000-word report from the viewpoint of a social worker. ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’
What are Ballard’s working habits like?
Every day five days a week. Longhand now it’s less tiring than a typewriter.
He sets himself a target of 700 words a day. He writes the first and second draft in long hand and types out the final draft. He writes for two hours in the morning, a walk, followed by two hours in the afternoon, ‘Then at six a scotch and soda, and oblivion.’ When asked about giving advice to young writers, Ballard warns:
Do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player.
- Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) makes sense of storytelling through the symbolic psychology of Carl Jung. Booker identifies seven story types, a range of archetypal characters, and the all-pervasive effect of ‘light’ or ‘dark’ internal worlds. At the core of this psychology of storytelling is the balance – or imbalance – between the male and female aspects of characters, and the mirroring of their internal journey to their progress in the world. The Seven Basic Plots uses this Jungian framework to make sense of the hero’s journey, from the call to action, to the resolution. The plots are: (1) Overcoming the monster, (2) Rags to riches, (3) The quest, (4) Voyage and return, (5) Comedy, (6) Tragedy, and (7) Rebirth. Booker includes some alternative, ‘dark’ versions – endings where the hero fails to achieve his or her objective. The interplay of masculine and feminine elements plays a prominent role in his understanding of stories, and the archetypes inhabiting them. The hero must essentially get in touch with his masculinity, to achieve his goal. Male characters dominated by their feminine sides are inherently weak and liable to become a ‘dark’ figure. The dark figures are: the dark father, the dark mother, the dark rival, and the dark other half. Booker’s framework for understanding stories feels old fashioned, theatrical, focused on classic mythology, filled with archetypes of the heroic male, potentially coming across as a series of traditional stereotypes: the masculine hero rescuing the beautiful princess. He does explain his framework with references to contemporary film, but it feels contrived: the examples have been carefully selected, because they fit in. Because, today, the most interesting heroes are complex, flawed, and incomplete – they are not ‘whole’ – they may even be ‘broken’. But, somehow, through courage, through conviction, by taking tough decisions, through perseverance, fearlessness, and ingenuity – they can succeed.
- Prometheus (2017) is the first of three prequel films in Ridley Scott’s reworked Alien franchise. These ‘backstories’, of a kind, take the Alien timeline from the past up to the original Alien (1979) point in the timeline. Prometheus chronicles a Weyland Industries expedition into deep space. It’s mission, to discover the origin, and consequentially the meaning of life. The journey begins with life being seeded on Earth by a human-like alien being, then it jumps to the decoding of a distant star system drawn on a cave wall, and then it jumps again to the arrival of the expedition on the distant planet. The dream of meeting mankind’s creators, potentially as equals – and for Weyland himself, discovering the key to everlasting life – turns into a nightmare when the expedition learns that the mysterious structure hides a terrifying force – monstrous aliens.
- In Interstellar (2014) a visionary ex-astronaut, living on a dying Earth, reignites the dream of interplanetary space travel, and peruses the hope of mass migration to another planet, one that can sustain life, in order to save humanity. In parallel to this adventure there’s the story of his leaving home and maintaining a meaningful relationship with his daughter. In some ways space is the perfect arena to question humanity’s relationship with nature, the origin of life, and our long-term survival.
- The Postman is a story about a man reconnecting with the truth, with love, and with other people – he starts as a wondering actor, then gets forced into a ‘brutal’ militaristic clan: he escapes and uses a discarded postman’s uniform to convince people that the USA still exists, a ploy to get food and shelter. That lie becomes the basis for a new hope – fairness and peace – which leads to the repressive, fascistic clan boss being killed, and the people being reunited. It’s a celebration of the working class, of the working class man: the humble postman who keeps society together.
- Waterworld takes place on an old oil tanker (the Exxon Valdez, a nod to 1990s environmental concerns). The discovery of land is made without the Mariner: a tattoo on a young girl’s back, deciphered by the balloon pilot. The story doesn’t explain the map, or why the tattoo is on her back.
- Relationships cause the nerds their biggest headaches, especially romantic ones. Roy in The IT Crowd is never able to make his relationships go anywhere due to his self-obsession and inability to relate to non-nerds. He’s always falling prey to misunderstandings and accusations of emotional immaturity. Maurice lives at home with his mother and inhabits an introverted nerd-world. The possibility of him finding a romantic relationship is unlikely. In Big Bang Theory Sheldon’s girlfriend is another nerd, but even she phlegmatically accepts his social awkwardness, lack of a conversational filter, and OCD, with loving despair. Leonard dates ‘the girl next door’, in the apartment opposite his. Penny is an attractive all-American ‘gal’, falling for his self-mocking humour, and sensitivity – Leonard is the antidote to her previous relationship with a self-obsessed, arrogant ‘jock’. Anxious (but successful research scientist) Leonard and all-American Penny (sporting, and popular at school, but now working as a waitress) provide a space where the writers can explore the marriage between two different social ‘tribes’. British TV comedy is usually more downbeat and cynical than its American equivalent. One of the advantages of writing a show about nerds is that it provides characters with an excuse for saying and doing things an audience might otherwise tire of, and to use nerdy characters to unknowingly make cynical sounding observations about human nature that might otherwise seem too dark. The IT Crowd is mostly set in the basement office of Reynholm Industries, a conglomerate run by the bonkers, womanising, Douglas Reynholm (after his father committed suicide when it was discovered that the company pension fund had been raided to prop up the business). Jen, the IT departments ‘Relationship Manager’ (who knows nothing about IT) has been installed to smooth the lines of communication between the rest of the company and the despised IT department. Reynholm Industries is a Kafkesque-meets-Orwellian dystopia, the epitome of corporate megalomania, pointless politics, petty rivalries, departmental silos, and mind-numbingly wasteful schemes that have obvious flaws. Sheldon and Leonard operate less in a work environment and more within the personal arena. There are only occasional references to their work being sponsored by the US military and its potential use in missile guidance systems – the nerds are more interested in pure science than actively developing military applications.
- Videodrome (1983) is the story of a pirate television station that broadcasts violent, sadomasochistic, snuff content. The effect of this content produces hallucination-inducing brain tumours. (The Videodrome television station is funded by a weapons manufacturer, with the secret aim of purging America of undesirable elements.) Often labelled as ‘techno-surrealism’, Videodrome feels like a Marshal McLuhan influenced work of surreal storytelling. In that respect it has similarities with the art-house horror of Barton Fink (1991), Eraserhead (1977), and Mulholland Drive (2001). The surreal blurring of reality and illusion is used to explore the loss of self-identity, brought about by an addiction to explicit content. Ultimately, this process culminates in insanity, and the melding of man with machine. The film predates the popularised internet of today, but it resonates with issues surrounding online addiction, and obsessive behaviour. The real (not acted) sadomasochistic content of the Videodrome network prophesies the explosion of reality television that occurred in the late 1990s.
- In Outland (1981) and Pale Rider (1985), a hero enters a mining community and defends the terrified population from a criminal overlord. Outland takes place on a distant planet, sometime in the future; Pale Rider is set in late 19th century California. Regardless of the location, both follow the pattern of a classic Western such as High Noon (1952). The hero, Preacher in Pale Rider, and William O’Niel in Outland, have troubled histories; they have faced themselves, and now they are ready to do the right thing. They will fight the corruption that is endemic in the system.
- The unsettling nature of Surrealism makes it suitable for the horror genre. La Cabina (The Phone Box) (1972) explores existential angst, when a man becomes trapped inside an apparently ordinary phone box. In The Thing (1982) an alien life-form mutates, turning itself into a series of ghastly monsters, before creepily mimicking the human form. Eraserhead (1977) plays with the psychological horror of urban angst, and in The Cell (2000) a female psychologist enters the disturbed comatose sub-consciousness of a sadistic killer (in order to discover the location of his last victim). In The Naked Lunch (1991) a drug addict hallucinates giant insects, and in Barton Fink (1991) an exasperated writer meets a serial killer, who could be the devil, or his alter ego. The hotel they are staying in feels alive with gloopy ‘perspiration’ dripping down the walls, reflecting the anxious, claustrophobic atmosphere – as if the building is a metaphor for his psychological state.
- The aliens in They live (1988) are already here, and they’ve successfully infiltrated society; walking around, doing ordinary things, disguised as people. When the hero dons a pair of special glasses he’s able to see them for what they are, along with their hidden mind-controlling messages. Outnumbered, and outgunned, he must figure out a way to defeat them – and save humanity from annihilation. They Live presents a dystopian, Orwellian vision of mass control, in the style of the popular Hollywood monster / horror story. Terrifying aliens – a ruling elite from outer space – have total control over society. In a similar vein to the paranoid fears expressed in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), and The Thing, the alien life-form is able to pass itself off as human.
- In Charley Varrick (1973) a botched bank robbery necessitates that Charley Varrick use his wits to outmanoeuvre an untrustworthy accomplice, and a ruthless mafia hitman. Charley Varrick plays the older male lead, the man who’s seen it all before – and somehow ended up at the bottom. He’s a man with a past – almost from another time – struggling in the modern world, a place with little decency. He once worked as part of a flying circus act (the kind of thing that had its heyday in the 1930s), now he’s using his crop dusting business as cover for his criminal activity: robbing banks. This new career direction involves working with unsavoury types: people like Harman Sullivan. Sullivan is immediately recognisable as the sloppy, criminal ‘scumbag’, a hot head, eager to use his gun, a man who will do anything to save his own skin. Sullivan insinuates that the only reason Varrick is still alive is because Sullivan needs Varrick to fly him down to Mexico. Varrick is a man of the world; he knows exactly what kind of person he’s up against. When he visits a photographer (who is producing their fake passports) he deliberately leaves his trailer park address with her, knowing that she is connected to the mafia and she will share his address with Molly, who will turn up and only Sullivan will be there. Although our sympathy lies with Varrick and he is presented as a ‘decent’ person in a morally bankrupt world, he is also ‘a bad guy’, or at least a hard person to empathise with. The story has its eccentric side, and drips with 1970s personality, but it’s quirky, offbeat feel, belies a grim world fuelled by macho competition, where there are no real heroes.
- The Thing (1982) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) are re-workings of earlier films: The Thing from Another World (1951), itself adapted from the science fiction novella Who Goes There? (1938); and the 1956 film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on the novel The Body Snatchers (1954). In both stories seemingly innocent events are harbingers of the horrific. A runaway Alsatian dog in The Thing, taken in, hours later transforms into a shocking mutation. And in Invasion of the Body Snatchers apparently ordinary people are behaving oddly, they don’t seem to be themselves: because they’re alien clones. A plant (whose spores originate from outer space) sucks the life out of those asleep within its proximity, and replicates them from a chrysalis-like pod. The most significant difference between these two stories is the end. The hero wins in The Thing: he achieves a victory for himself, and for mankind (and the watching audience). As a result it feels like a celebration. The hero in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a victim. This story warns us about fighting a monster that has the strategic sense to build up enough resources to become invincible.