Frank Perry’s strange and haunting film The Swimmer gets a rare screening at the Vancity Theatre on Saturday (October 12). The 1968 oddity stars Burt Lancaster as an almost mystically vibrant middle-aged man who tries to “swim home” via the backyard pools stretching across an affluent Connecticut valley. “Ebert called it Burt Lancaster’s finest role,” Robert K. Elder tells the Straight, in a call from Chicago. “And it’s really tough to see.”
Not quite as tough as it was; Elder is presenting the newly restored DCP version of the film when he comes here in support of his new book, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen. The film columnist and author asked 35 filmmakers to “turn me on to films that they were very, very passionate about,” roping in folk like Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, and Peter Bogdanovich to hold forth on obscurities that range from The Beaver Trilogy to Nic Roeg's all but forgotten Eureka. (Sadly, Robert Altman also said yes to Elder but passed away before they could talk.)
The Swimmer—which Alex Proyas (Dark City) lobbied for, calling it the “absolute flipside” of the hero’s journey—is a film with a long established cult reputation. Other choices are a little more offbeat, like John Dahl (Red Rock West) on the much maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Warm Bodies director Jonathan Levine’s robust defense of the Village People vehicle, Can’t Stop the Music.
But, said Elder, “this is not a collection of guilty pleasures. This is me challenging filmmakers to help me rewrite film history. 'What has gone under the radar, and is completely misunderstood, and that you find yourself defending to other people?’ It’s my job to be the sort of devil’s advocate because I come to the conversation kind if needing to challenge them, saying, ‘Listen, this is why history forgot this film or this is why it was pushed aside.' And most of the time they do a good job of defending their film.”
Other times, Elder adds with a laugh, they don’t. “Henry Jaglom picked F for Fake, this amazing Orson Welles film,” he says, “and he didn’t want to play ball. He didn’t want to hear anything negative about the film because, you know, he says it’s a masterpiece that does not need to be defended. And he’s right. It’s a really, really great interview. But it’s more fun when we have this sort of back and forth, you know? Like Richard Linklater talking about the problems of Some Came Running or Guillermo De Toro talking about Pupi Avati’s Arcane Sorcerer.”
Kevin Smith argued with Elder over the very inclusion of Fred Zinnemann’s stately 1966 classic A Man for All Seasons. “I said, ‘Look, it swept the Oscars, it does not belong in the book,’” Elder recalls. “And he said, ‘No, it absolutely belongs in the book because no one remembers it; no one talks about it; it’s not an influential film; it’s not on cable; no one talks about Paul Scofield; no one under 30 has seen it...’ And I have to say, Kevin was right. We’re programing it at a couple of places, and I just got off the phone with a programmer at a theatre who had never seen this Oscar-sweeping film.”
Meanwhile, like the rest of us, Elder naturally was introduced to a few Best Films He’d Never Seen—such as Richard Fleischer's grim portrait of the British murderer John Christie, 10 Rillington Place. "Sean [Durkin] turned me onto this film," he says, "which is the most bone-chilling serial killer film I’ve ever seen, simply for the fact that the serial killer is not this omnipotent mastermind, he’s just a very human-sized character, played with sort of meek ferocity by Richard Attenborough. It’s super disturbing and I thought about it for weeks afterwards.”