Glimpses at SWIMMING

IVANA MILOŠ: The sea, as it surrounds your ears while you float on your back in the water made buoyant by salt, translates all audible sensations into a faint crackling reminiscent of embers flickering in the fireplace and yet so different, worlds apart, in this unique experience that speaks volumes about the essence of water. Swimming in cinema is strange because this vital element is the very one gone missing: the sensation made up of unnamable hope and reliance that is the state of being physically suspended in water. At the same time, there seems to be an innate correspondence between the state of a swimmer and that of a cinema-goer. There is something about letting go, rediscovering yourself in a position of vulnerability, depending on elements outside oneself for survival. Something about trust and faith, something I miss every day I don’t feel it reaching all the way to my toes. Maybe that is why the first image that comes to mind when I think about swimming in cinema is not that of a human, but a seahorse – the protagonist of Jean Painlevé’s L’Hippocampe ou cheval marin. I can’t imagine what it might feel like to be immersed in water as a seahorse, hence the leap of faith I need to make when watching it isn’t too far-fetched – it is impossible. And, of course, it’s all the more interesting for that. The seahorse sails underwater, it swings and surges. The seahorse is beyond my wildest dreams. I don’t think the way seahorses move underwater can be described as swimming, but it feels right to associate them with cinema nonetheless. Films have placed another image of swimming within easy reach of my mind – that of swimming pools. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are places whose connotations I derive almost entirely from the history of cinema, drawing on films like Sunset Blvd. to Cat People to Boogie Nights for inspiration. Pools are so different from the sea that I surely needn’t waste any words on ascertaining the fact. And even most Hollywood creations make sure to make films featuring pools more about mystery and murder or luxury and decadent lounging around than about swimming. And that was how swimming pools entered my reality and continue to swim on in me. Although the inclusion of the sensation of swimming in a film may be improbable, or even hopeless, the swimming we ourselves indulge in when at the cinema, though far from the sea, is all of its own making.

ANDREW CHRISTOPHER GREEN: Floridian childhood; time spent in front of enormous glass-window aquariums looking into underwater landscapes where exotic fish, glittering like jewels, drifted around aimlessly. These windows were like portals, cross-cut sections splitting apart a habitat you could see with the same clarity as goggles, only framed and thereby displacing you. The camera does this too. Underwater scenes are like a dream. Our descent into another world gets doubled. Everything becomes even more porous in the opaque and murky abyss. Boundaries slip, time dilates a bit. And the lens holds these movements with a fidelity we lose ourselves in. This linkage and disorientation isn’t purely optical but relates to the movement of memory. I think the recovery of whats been submerged is the aim of film criticism.

In Arthur Penn’s Night Moves Jennifer Warren and Gene Hackman, accompanying Susan Clark on a night swim, discover a drowned plane and see the pilot’s face being eaten by fish through the glass bottom of their boat. The montage cuts in and out of the water as Clark shrieks about, and the audio always corresponds to the camera’s relation to the surface; underwater being a muffled, almost noiseless place. The boats bottom lights flicker. Afterwards, back home trying to process what happened, an attempt at interpretation disperses into series of associations. Warren asks Hackman where he was when Kennedy got shot. “Which Kennedy?” “Any Kennedy.” “Why do you ask?” “It’s one of those questions everybody knows the answer to.” She leaves, only to return a few moments later. “It was that poor bastard in the plane. I remember Bobby when he got shot; the newsreels they made it look like everything was happening underwater. The first time anyone ever touched my breasts was a boy called Billy Handruther. The nipples stayed hard for nearly a half an hour afterward. Don’t you think thats sad?” “No. I think it’s kind of nice.” “I don’t. I think it’s so fucking sad.”

They make love. Hackman wakes up to the sound of Susan Clark screaming and crying. She’d been having a nightmare about the pilot. He goes to calm her down, patting her back. “I like being patted like that. It’s supposed to remind you of before you were born, your mother’s heart beating on your back. Do you think you can remember back that far?

ANNA BABOS: Being in the water is a liberating feeling, swimming to the other side is a challenge, and being submerged is a purgatory. You can let yourself go with the flow, be pushed down by the waves, or learn to ride them. You can play on the surface of the unknown world or going down to explore the infinite depth. All the possible activities in the water are rich in metaphorical meanings, religious undertones, archetypical connotations, and associations. Even though there are plenty of things to do in oceans, seas, lakes or rivers, including swimming, floating is the only thing I have seen in recent festival darlings, student films, or commercial hits. Characters relax, enjoying the surface, gently touching their body, thinking about everything or nothing at all. These scenes depict a moment when they can turn off what’s going on out there and be alone with nature and with their thoughts. Different characters in different stories, in different waters, all of them choosing the same way to ponder. Has floating become the consensual sign of the wandering mind, like fidgeting hands show nervousness or shouting from a mountain into nowhere expresses either anger or the joy of freedom? These characters seem doomed by their writers to reveal their personalities through the simplest and therefore most inauthentic types of schemes. Floating, a pleasant activity in itself, is rendered meaningless in the hands of writers and directors who don’t look for expressive ways of showing emotions and ideas.


Körper im Wasser könnte man stundenlang filmen, man könnte ihnen stundenlang zuschauen. Das Bild bleibt ohne Zutun immer in Bewegung; es spiegelt, verzerrt, fluktuiert; organisch wechselt es seine Formen. Wasser bricht auf.

Ebenso reagiert es auf den Körper, zerstäubt, zerbricht in Einzelteile, ändert seine Erscheinung.

In Gunvor Nelsons Moon’s Pool sehen wir zwei Schwimmende im Wasser. In José Antonio Sistiagas era erera baleibu izik subua aruaren… sind die Schwimmenden nicht mehr im Bild. Wir, die Zuschauer sind es, die im Zelluloid schwimmen.

Der Leinwand, auf der handbemalte Muster irr über uns hinwegrauschen, eignen hier Qualitäten des Wassers. Sie agiert als Wunderspiegel, formt und verzerrt unsere Wahrnehmung, beständig schillernd, sich ins Gegenteil verkehrend.

RONNY GÜNL: Einfach treiben und in den Himmel sehen. Kunstvoll geformte Figuren, auf- und abtauchend. Oder versinken ins tiefe, dunkle Nichts. Jede einzelne Assoziation weckt dabei ihre jeweiligen träumerisch-filmischen Bilder. Erst, wenn die Kamera unter der Wasseroberfläche verschwindet, offenbart sich eine andere Welt. Von oben betrachteten Reflexionen der Wellen erscheinen als Strahlen, die sich sanft-wankend wie Tücher aus Tüll bewegen. Aufsteigende Luftbläschen verzieren die stille Harmonie. Bizarre Formen aus Licht und Schatten bilden dieses Schauspiel auf gefliestem oder sandigem Boden ab.

Ein Film wie Taris, roi de l’eau von Jean Vigo geht darin verloren. Gedreht in Zeitlupen, einerseits fasziniert von der eleganten Bewegung des olympischen Schwimmers, andererseits von der Anmut des Wassers. Nur allzu gern möchte man fühlen, zwischen Wasser und Schwimmen bilde sich eine unzertrennliche Einheit. Doch unterliegen beide Seiten nicht gänzlich entgegengesetzten Prinzipien? Die Ungegenständlichkeit des Wassers in einer filmischen Erfahrung zu beschreiben, ermöglicht sich erst durch die präzisen Schwünge der Gliedmaßen sowie den stetigen Rhythmus des Ein- und Ausatmens.

Scheinbar mühelos wirken die technisch anspruchsvollen Bewegungen Jean Taris’, als wäre das jahrelang zehrende Training der Immerselben nur ein freizeitliches Vergnügen gewesen. Ein trickreicher Sprung zurück an den Beckenrand verwandelt ihn in seine Straßenkleidung. Mithilfe einer Überblendung verschwindet er im nächtlichen Schwarz des Beckens. Geht er über das Wasser oder schwimmt er mit der Menge, gedrängt auf den Boulevards der Stadt?

SIMON PETRI: Swimming is preceded by rituals: the swimmer changes clothes and then waters his own body to get conditioned on the temperature. The degree of effort or fussiness by which these actions are conducted can signal the swimmer’s state of mind: his relation to nudity, to cold, whether he is an impatient intruder or a careful explorer. The boy in Jacques Rozier’s Rentrée des classes doesn’t mind getting his clothes wet, and he doesn’t need to fear the cold  on the sparkling summer day he swims down a creek into the maze of nature. Though he is a brave and curious drifter, he goes into the creek attentively. The boy repairs the holes in his shoe before stepping into the water. He carefully chooses his way and uses his arms to balance as he adjusts to the creek’s rhythm. He wades farther away from the town and the foliage above grows denser: lights and shadows constantly change on his bright dress. He lies on his back, trying to let the creek carry him, but it’s too shallow. He reaches the wilderness and notices a snake: now, it’s the right depth to finally swim.

Rozier, like many French filmmakers, knows how to film people in water. First, he filmed this little friend of snakes, whose searching, responsive gaze reflects the wonders of swimming in nature. Both Rozier and his characters grew older but he continued to allow them to indulge in the locations.

JAMES WATERS: The swimming scene in Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is 42 seconds long, one among a succession of static takes showing artist-couple H (Liam Gillick) and D (Viv Albertine) performing their last errands – like ritual, almost – as a way of saying goodbye to their house, newly on the market after 18 years of use.

In these 42 seconds, D swims naked in her house’s pool. D and the pool are shown in unnaturally white and blue hues, respectively. The sound of her floating, then spinning, is conveyed via delicate foley-work, uncommon in scenes of swimming. Too often the splashes are deafening, the pool an excuse for the filmmakers to indulge in a luxuriating, ASMR-like set piece.

The muffled, outside noises are more predominant than the sounds of swimming, even. Hogg referred to this scene as a musical sequence without the music, but it’s better than that. All the elements are there: a musician (Albertine, former frontwoman of The Slits) and her 360 motions, floating slowly from right-to-left. But the song is missing (upon first inspection).

The scene’s quiet tenor brought a song’s lilting melody to my mind. The song was Gareth Williams and Mary Currie’s Breast Stroke (Williams was Albertine’s contemporary in the 70’s London music scene). There’s an unobtrusiveness to a song’s melody when the viewer brings it to the film instead of the filmmaker.

So, D swims. Not in silence – but quietude. Aurally, there’s nothing between us and her. The intricacies of her and the swimming pool’s noises toe the line perfectly between the aforementioned noise and deathly silence – the kind of silence common in films but absent in life. These two elements – the woman, her movements and her pool – say more than any literal song or dance could. Whatever song plays is for both D and the viewer to discern. Perhaps it’s no song at all.