Pool is Life
Murder and intrigue in your suspiciously lavish, suburban gothic architecture high school? It's more likely than you think
The niche sports thriller genre hit a peak in the early 2000s, and arguably, the society our bipartisan leadership built for us in the 1990s, at least among suburbanites, made the improbable seem plausible through the narrative device of a niche sport that the general public might not really know or really care about; they assume, perhaps subconsciously, that this is the domain of the more privileged, and thus, not something they need to evaluate further, whether or not this is even true; the veneer of a fancy, gothic high school, or a palatial Los Angeles campus, can make even the most commonplace sports like swimming seem like a fantasy landscape that, for all its surreality in the film, might be an entirely fictional sport.
I am, of course, talking about films like Swimfan, Bring It On, even films like American Pie which seem plausible enough, but the carefree nature of the narrative is just a little too clean, and if you think about it too much, these otherwise brilliant, eminently enjoyable films become weird detached from time and place (consider that war in Bosnia was breaking out during more than one of these, Yugoslavia ceased to exist, 9/11 hijackers were—with the full awareness of the CIA- in the country) in a way that could only have existed in a pre-War on Terror world.
The compelling thing about these films for millennials, I suspect, is that it’s a stark reminder that the world was once a very different place; sure, many were living in a very different America from the white, upper-middle-class suburbanites in Bring It On, for example, before 9/11 and well before that as well, but it was a recognizable trope with a comprehensible set of concerns within the realm of possibility— imagine sincerely explaining the plot of this movie in 2020 as if it were your own life on a site like Twitter; it’s the fast track to becoming the “main character” of Twitter that day.
The thing about Swimfan that I think makes it a touchstone of the era is the combination of the film’s narrative in this respect, but the juxtapostion with a nü metal soundtrack, while also relying on communication mediums that simply could not exist today (asynchronous forums imitating instant messaging, in this case, in a world where Google also does not exist!) and ensure you could reach the person you wanted. Similar to films like Urban Legend, the Scream series, The Skulls, etc. it takes the premise of a school that plausibly exists in 1998-2001, and gives you something to salivate over as gossip (the meta-narrative of Urban Legend), and you fill in the Mad Libs of the narrative; the radio kid, the newspaper nerd, the goths, etc.
A cool thing about Swimfan is that the niche sport is swimming; a thing I, personally, cannot do, but even I can appreciate the athleticism required to do it, there’s protocol, for an individual sport, about how other swimmers are to interact in a pool, etc. In this film it replaces martial arts as this mentally-centering exercise of forthright discipline in a film like The Karate Kid a generation earlier; Ben, a former drug addict and thief is sentenced to community service at a run-down indoor pool, where he begins his journey to the top of the pack in his school, only to be setup on the day of a big competition with a bogus charge of steroid use— something considered zero tolerance by his coach, played by the absolute Syrian-American badass, Dan Hedaya, and he is thrown off the team. From there, his life unravels, without swimming, just as it had been what had put his life back together in the first place; something the antagonist of the film knew about him, and knew well enough to exploit for her personal gain.
Jesse Bradford, himself, is no stranger to this type of character; from finding zen in the internals of a Macintosh IIe in Hackers, to the Southern California-infused skate punk of the late 1990’s in Bring it On, to this role, he’s set apart by commitment to a higher personal expression. We see this play out as well with Joshua Jackson’s singular commitment to working class ideals amongst the monied elite in The Skulls, Randy in Scream’s commitment to film, all things that, ultimately, lead them into trouble, and in the latter couple of cases, fatally.
For much of the last two decades, however, this type of film has lost its contemporaneousness; 9/11 made it improbable that you’d engage with a film like this sincerely, which is why, with no lack of such films coming out (many of them just as good in the same so-bad-it’s-good way), none have become standards for this generation as these had been for millennials. Only ironic detachment has managed to revive the horror-thriller genre, and largely in the form of the productions of the Blumhouse studios. They’ve made franchises like The Purge commercially successful, but this was because they were sincere and rooted in real-world anxieties, whereas their real hits come in the form of movies like Escape Room, Upgrade (especially Upgrade), Ma, and even supremely critical fare like Get Out, which tackles serious subject matter, with the ironic detachment of a late-20th century aesthetic approach that celebrates the style of the time, while applying a likewise critical lens on the period and its contribution to the narrative.
Even in our ironic detachment, we’re aware of the escapist element, rather than the immersive nature—the kayfabe of relatability- of these films in their original time and place; these places maybe never existed, at least not literally, but spiritually, it was a commentary on the excesses of our culture— we’d run out of problems. To watch a film made in this manner today is to suggest our stimulus exposure is near total at all times, and maybe that’s a notion with some validity; people see these movies for a reason, a post-modern take on the Gen X-er who is a little too into horror movies. Even the comparative low quality of the pictures themselves, the realism of the violence, the triteness of the narratives, and even the artifical (and self-aware failures to properly complete a) recreation of this genre in the present speaks to a purely millennial view of media; the films of our youth rarely had substantial budgets, rarely even had coherent plots, but they had aesthetic, they had a message, and anyone wonders why people of this generation have short attention spans, not from distraction, but from volume of quotidian concerns that compete for the limited hours in a day one can commit. It’s all urgent, and the stakes are always that high, even if they’re not.
You’re always Ben on the poolside, about to dominate a race in full view of scouts from Stanford, ready to validate the sacrifice of your adolescense to your craft, only to be knee-capped and have it taken all away. It seems crushing in the moment, and this is the most realistic aspect of the film; rendered directionless, ultimately he’d be fine, but rarely do we recover from these derailings after a certain number of times, outside of our control, and rarely to adulthood without realizing this is a system potentially not worth preserving, in its commitment to stacking the deck in its own exclusionary favor— we love to see an underdog, but we, as a society, love to see one blow it just as much. This is what post-millennial capitalist ideation about competition, individualism, and the predatory nature of our economics had engendered in our society from our politics right down to our interpersonal relationships with our fellow community members.
What this genre of movie is, more than most other perids of time, a document of this time period, but unlike those of decades before or since, they’re going to age horribly, and not just because the music wouldn’t be palatable if not for the nostalgia of an infinitely simpler time, but because it’s a world an entire generation was raised in and came to relate to, only for this world they prepared to enter some version of (even in a horror thriller, it’s an idealization) to no longer exist.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: