Pool Party

by Jeremy Polacek on June 2, 2014

Sill from Footlight Parade

Still from ‘Footlight Parade’ (1933) (image via strawberryblondefilms/Tumblr)

On the eve of summer, Slate has put together a timely, bubbly supercut of swimming pool scenes in cinema. Scored to “Sometime” by the indie rock band DIIV, the orthodox supercut safely commingles that peculiar array of scenes and moods — nostalgia, summertime abandon, sex, morbidity, spiritual emptiness — seemingly unique to the swimming pool.

“With Memorial Day weekend approaching,” Slate writes, “we decided to bring together our favorite cinematic scenes of sex and death — and everything in between — that transpire in swimming pools.”

Even though it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the ocean or even a lake, the cinematic swimming pool is seemingly a far deeper, existentially frothy place. Perhaps only space rivals it in potential, but despite the number of films set in the cosmos, the swimming pool is still a funnier, undeniably more sensual, domestic, and communal place. From the the scatolgoical — Caddyshack‘s Baby Ruth-doody scene — to the suicidal —Harold and Maude — to the spectacular — all those water ballet scenes — to the sexual — take your pick — the swimming pool is astonishingly varied, a wellspring of life or death.

This uncanniness is too much for just one supercut, and thankfully there is another, this one by Les Incompetents.

Published almost two years ago in 2012, Les Incompetents score their supercut (sharing many of the same films) with the the hazy chillwave tune “Dirty Dreams” by Work Drugs. The choice of music gives the supercut a more contemplative, dreamy atmosphere that resonates with the ambivalent, mutable environment of the summer pool, which can be communal or private, seasonal or year long, the empty pool a symbol of change and loss — or a place for skateboards to radically reimagine as freewheeling utopias.

What explains the summer pool’s thematic and visual dynamism? Unpack its design and suite of characteristics and it becomes clear.

Pools possess a unique aesthetic and design all their own: flat, clear, and blue. And under the water the view is memorably different, a translucent and distorted imagery films use to great effect. A pool may be private or public, privileged or communal, further lending the space a variety of feelings, occupants, and associations — from one person in a large pool to ten in a small, with each feeling much different than the other.  And yet, a pool is a relatively small space, even at the Olympic level; it’s concentrated, but still large and open enough that it overlaps privacy and exposure, isolation and voyeurism. Safety and vulnerability often co-reside. The feeling that someone can see you adds to both the death drive and sex drive.

And, of course, youth often make up its audience, a reliably erratic, emotional, and sexual bunch; the swimming pool demanding and condoning an amount of skin generally unacceptable anywhere else but the beach.

With that in mind, perhaps the car, sharing this combination of confinement, youth, sex, strength, and vulnerability is the only filmed space that comes as close to the pool’s protean richness. But where do you want to spend your summer? In the car or at the pool?

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  • Elliot Walters

    What an awesome article! There’s some parallels between the swimming pool and the white cube gallery space too. They’re both a strange type of real estate that is governed by a variety of socio-economic conditions while remaining empty for large periods of time. They also both require constance maintenance to project a pristine image.

    • t.vincent

      There’s plenty of pool types, and some of the most fun are the least pristine. I think there’s lots of potential in the glorification of the transient trashiness of the above-ground pool.

    • Jeremy Polacek

      Thanks for the kind words.

  • t.vincent

    Spend a summer by the pool or in the car? If I had the money, I choose car. We can have that debate after your next article, “Road Trip.”

    • Jeremy Polacek

      perhaps. but hasn’t that article has been written a few times already? Maybe some thought and a little study is in order before I say it can’t be done.

      • t.vincent

        maybe substitute “summer job” for “road trip.” Summer Job and Pool Party are both seasonal and both have their obstacles and opportunities, but it seems like there’d be some great complexity in the comparison of ways to spend a high-school summer.

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