Hummingbirds sip on beer, and poodles transform into leaf blowers in the sunny suburbs.
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FEATURING: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey
PLOT: In the pastel roadways of an uncanny suburbia, Jill gives her baby away to a friend and then starts losing everything else she holds dear.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In case you were thinking that Hell Suburbia was over and done with as a genre, think again. Greener Grass piles the golf carts, dental perfection, tight-femme-mom-chic pinks, and non-sequitur Valley Girl dialogue high on a teetering mound of absurdity, satire, comedy, and dystopia.
COMMENTS: Everyone envies Jill (Joceyln DeBoer). Her best friend Lisa is jealous of her baby immediately upon belatedly noticing it for the very first time. Another friend is amazed at the canapés she brought to her daughter’s birthday party. (“They’re so small!”) Her son is in the school’s elite “Rocket Math” program. Her home is pitch-perfect “Better Homes & Gardens” elegance, complete with a new pool whose oxygen filtration system makes its water, according to her husband, delicious. Her teeth are getting better, too; like every other adult in her town, she has braces.
Beginning with an impulsive effort to please her best friend (Dawn Luebbe, all glorious awkwardness and legs), Jill’s life starts sliding downhill. Handing off her baby to its new owner (cue portentous music) we see Jill’s awkward smile, which continues during the opening credits, filling up the entire screen, the rictus grin quavering throughout, then continuing to quaver on and off through the entire movie. Greener Grass blinds us with its pink and glossy-white vision of a post-utopian Suburbia. These folks have every comfort, and so fall back on one-upmanship and staggering vapidity. Jill’s cracks at the start become fissures during her husband’s 40th birthday party, when their son, himself quavering in his awkwardness, feebly croons the “birthday song” before collapsing into the immaculate pool, emerging as an immaculate yellow retriever. (His father is thrilled at the change.)
I don’t know the history of evilly pristine suburbs, but David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet is as good a landmark as any. While his had an underside of all-too-human unpleasantness, Greener Grass doesn’t allow for a speck of what we’d recognize as genuine humanity. There is no controversy or evil, just pettiness: withering criticism of a child’s tardiness—directed against Jill; dismissiveness of a gift of bean dip (being a mere five layers instead of seven)—directed against Jill; chastisement for being “rude” at a four-way intersection—directed against Jill.
Greener Grass is something of a feminist movie, but it points out that some of women’s worst enemies can be their fellow women. Jill’s friend attempts to take over her life from the start, beginning with the baby, before moving on to subtly co-opting everything else. This Mean Girls reality—one seen through (ominously) rose-colored lenses—creates something entirely unexpected: a sympathetic character amidst the dross of upper-middle class nothings. I couldn’t describe the tone simply as being “heavy-handed”; although it’s like a shotgun to the face for ninety minutes, it’s saturated as much by weirdo, “Upright Citizens Brigade”-style comedy as it is with social criticism. “Miss Human”, the second-grade teacher, with her Oregon Trail-style lesson plans; the “French”-style bistro replete with beret-wearing waiter fops; and the father’s beaming pride at his son’s new speed and charisma as a dog: these are all odd, and well executed—and taken as far as possible without letting up. Jill’s torment never ceases, but she never stops smiling. Ever.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Lorcan Finnegan
FEATURING: Imogen Poots, , Jonathan Aris
PLOT: A young couple visit a realtor’s office on a whim and find themselves trapped in an empty, endlessly repeating suburban hellscape.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While the concept of suburban repetition has been explored before, Finnegan’s take on it is unceasingly unnerving. Its dark finale proceeds to relieve none of the tension built throughout the dispiriting ordeal.
COMMENTS: Contrary to some rumors I had heard being spread about Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg, it seems that their appearance in two back-to-back Fantasia films (see also The Art of Self-Defense) was mere coincidence. Poots sat down with director (and story-writer) Lorcan Finnegan and thought of Eisenberg as the male lead; the actor was immediately interested. I can see why, too: Vivarium is one of the creepiest and dystopian-est stories I’ve seen in. By the film’s end, I was experiencing what can be best described as “the jibblies”.
Gemma (Imogen), a kindergarten teacher, and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), a groundskeeper doing odd-jobs at her school, have finally started to think about “settling down.” While a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs isn’t anything like what they want, they decide to have a laugh and follow Martin (an unreal Jonathan Aris), the creepy real estate agent, and visit housing unit number 9 in the new “Yonder” development; a subdivision with the tagline: “Quality homes. Forever.” After a brief tour, Martin disappears, and the couple is left baffled. Their attempts to leave are thwarted by the labyrinthine repetitiveness of the homes, and their car runs out of gas—conveniently, in front of their designated unit. Soon a parcel with food and supplies arrives. Soon after, a parcel with a live infant is left by their curb.
Vivarium opens with an ominous murder of one baby chick by another in the nest before nestling into a cutesy boy-and-girl story. The eccentric and over-eager realtor even makes the opening comedic. But hope collapses quickly as the story’s narrative rut takes over within the first ten minutes. The boy that shows up isn’t human—he reaches a physical age of 5 or 6 by “Day 94”, as marked by the couple on a door frame in their purgatorial domicile. His haunting voice is… modular. He’s given to mimicry, much like the real estate agent. And he screams whenever something does not go exactly according to routine. Tom is the first to break, attempting initially to starve the creature, then taking solace in an ever-deepening hole he’s digging in an attempt to escape. Gemma unwillingly becomes a mother figure to the creature, and seesaws between frustration at the situation and hope at discovering the reason behind their imprisonment.
I may be explaining my enthusiasm poorly here, but I am feeling an unearthly numbness at the moment. Lorcan Finnegan captures us along with the couple, and lets us grope blindly along with them. While there is something of a reveal in the final moments, it’s one of those that raises at least as many questions as it answers, with hints of extraterrestrial and theological oddness along the way. With its near-ceaseless malaise, mitigated only by the occasional flicker of human hope and kindness, Vivarium is like a shot of novocaine to the soul: it will put you under into a minty-green coma of unease.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[The Swimmer needed] someone like a Fellini or a Truffaut. It needed some kind of strange, weird approach to capture the audience and make them realize that, in a way, they were not looking at anything real.”–Burt Lancaster
“What the hell does this mean and who the hell would want to make it?“–Unnamed studio executive’s response to Eleanor Perry’s screenplay for The Swimmer
DIRECTED BY: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)
PLOT: Ned Merrill, a fifty something suburbanite, begins his day with a strange, simple goal of swimming home through a “river of pools.” Christened “Lucinda’s River,” after Ned’s wife, our protagonist connects the dots from swimming pool to swimming pool, speaking to neighbors along the way who reveal a little more about his character. Ned’s odyssey inexorably drains his illusions, rendering his truth an authentic nightmare.
- Although highly athletic, Burt Lancaster did not know how to swim and prepared for the role with several months of swimming lessons.
- The Swimmer was the dream project of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry, with Frank directing Eleanor’ s adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. Fortunately for them, star Burt Lancaster got behind the project. Although the project was greenlit in the experimental sixties, Columbia Studio and producer Sam Spiegel were skeptical. Spiegel could not grasp the material, and constant fights with Frank Perry lead to the director being fired. Perry was replaced by Sydney Pollack, whose feel for the narrative lacked Perry’s poetic eccentricity. Luckily, Eleanor Perry was on set to the end to counteract Speigel’s clueless demands, one of which included asking for a happy ending. In the end Spiegel had his name removed from the film.
- According to the documentary The Story of the Swimmer, one of the primary reasons Frank Perry was fired and half his scenes were reshot was a dispute over a scene with actress Barbara Loden. Lancaster and Loden apparently got caught up in their love scene in a pool, and down came Loden’s bathing suit top. Perry wanted the scene intact. Unknown to the director, Spiegel was a good friend to the actress’ husband, Elia Kazan. True to his nature ((Kazan’s reputation had already been cemented when he was the first to name names for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, destroying many lives for merely having leftist affiliations. Kazan never regretted his actions and publicly stood by his behavior)), Kazan told the Perrys he was okay with the scene, and then double crossed them by going to Speigel, demanding the director be fired. Spiegel’s reputation was almost as bad as Kazan’s and Loden expected her dismissal, which came when she was replaced by Janice Rule.
- Spiegel promised to be available on set for Lancaster, but predictably broke his promise, which resulted in numerous problems, including Columbia prematurely pulling the plug on The Swimmer. An additional day of shooting was needed and Lancaster was forced to finance the final shoot out of his own pocket.
- A young Joan Rivers makes her first cinematic appearance in a small role as a rich suburbanite. Surprisingly, she is quite good. Later, Rivers complained that Lancaster required numerous takes and made her character “unsympathetic,” which naturally inspires a smile from the rest of us.
- Author John Cheever makes a cameo as a passed-out drunk.
- This is the first film score by Marvin Hamlisch. Producer Spiegel gave him the gig after hearing him play piano at a party. Hamlisch was still in college at the time.
- Despite all the production tensions, The Swimmer opened to good reviews, but predictably bombed at the box office. Its financial failure succeeded in quickly cementing a solid cult status.
- The Swimmer was released in a poor-quality DVD in 2003 that quickly went out of print, and the movie was essentially unavailable on home video until Grindhouse Releasing’s 2014 Blu-ray/DVD edition.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Ned, coming upon an empty pool and a boy who is afraid to swim, believes his”project” has been ruined. Ever the innovator, the swimmer, with young cadet by his side, takes a pantomime dip. They breast-stroke, dog-paddle, and wade their way through a barren basin. Allegories abound in The Swimmer and there is truth, wanted or not, to be found in the cliche “out of the mouths of babes.” This scene is obvious, and in other hands, it would have been too much so. Yet, with assured direction and acting, it makes for a potent vignette here.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of The Swimmer is contextual, as opposed to visual or on the surface. Taking place in the course of a day, the film is a phantasmagoric metaphor for an entire life. The final, devastating scene, though expected, will hauntingly linger like the film itself does. The Swimmer’s composition resembles a short story, and is not at all what we expect in a film. The movie beautifully breaks the rules, with David L. Quaid’s cinematography and Marvin Hamlisch’s score enhancing the strange, impressionistic quality.
Original trailer for The Swimmer
COMMENTS: With its wholly odd, even fragile structure and troublesome shooting, The Swimmer‘s success was dependent on the right actor in the Continue reading 177. THE SWIMMER (1968)