Double feature: Lots of films concern themselves with the “what” or “when” of action. “The Straight Story” and “The Swimmer” stand out, and link to each other, by placing their urgency on the “how.” Both center on protagonists who turn routine journeys into quests by dreaming up exquisitely particular, unconventional ways to get from point A to point B.
In both films, the logic behind these methods – riding a tractor across thousands of miles, pool-hopping across town – is never explicitly articulated. Probably because this “logic” is beyond explication, entwined with magical thinking. Possibly because these means are the only way for the characters to face their uncomfortable ends: the deceptively desultory meandering is actually fortification for eventual moments of reckoning. With each scene, the stakes rise higher, as you realize that any interruption or hiccup would serve as the perfect excuse for the protagonists to abandon their respective quests.
“The Swimmer” is an especially amazing artifact, simultaneously fresh and well-preserved. Impeccably stylish, textured with leafy shadows, shimmering with turquoise pool-water, and broken by the electric potential of a July thunderstorm, it is the perfect marker of summer.
For a marathon: For more magical thinking, stubbornly solitary journeys, and in-transit confessions, check out (or revisit) the remarkable “Into the Wild.”
The family prickliness in “The Straight Story” is implicit and offscreen, making itself known gradually. Not so with “The Trip to Bountiful” – another film hinging on a seemingly impossible journey – whose domestic tensions are oppressively palpable from the first minute. Eventually, both films modulate into a similar key of wistfulness that is resigned to the past, desperate about the present, and half hopeful for/half unconcerned with the future.
Transpose “The Swimmer” to winter and you have “The Ice Storm,” another visually impeccable study of chilly Connecticut angst. The latter film (also a literary adaptation) owes a significant, if unconscious, debt to the former. Note the rhyming scenes in drained swimming pools.
(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “KurtClark” and “Rosa Say” at Flickr)