' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Lifeguard (1976)

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Lifeguard (1976)

“Lifeguard’s” opening images of sun-splashed California beaches and girls in bikinis suggests a certain sort of movie, especially when the eponymous 32-year-old character, Rick Carlson (Sam Elliott), arrives at his lifeguard as the movie opens and summer begins and converses with a gaggle of horny pre-teens, not so much dressing them down as comically sympathizing with their aim. Rick is a pre-Apatow man-child, you think, one destined to confront adulthood’s inexorable truths when he receives an invite to his 15 year high school reunion where former classmates’ more traditional success will no doubt stare him straight in the face. But if “Lifeguard” never entirely usurps your expectations, an unanticipated and refreshing air of melancholy nevertheless gradually envelops the film, evoked in the lite FM soundtrack. What initially emits whimsy gradually becomes wistful without you, maybe even without Rick, noticing.

In a way, “Lifeguard” suggests a darker “Summer School”, the partially remembered 1987 comedy where Mark Harmon’s beach bum cum high school teacher is forced to square with his own arrested development. Of course, he also dates a student in a subplot the story refrains from scrutinizing as much as its dubious ethics suggest. Rick winds up in an underage relationship too. He meets Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan) on the beach, who is 16, and while the illegality is acknowledged, it is also brushed off, with Rick addressing it less gravely than in the tone of a man fed up with Big Government Regulations. (Note: It was not a differen time.) No, director Daniel Petrie forgoes examining behavioral standards to merely employ Rick’s dalliance with Wendy as a potential avenue to maturity, establishing Rick as a highly irregular father figure while also functioning as a counterpoint to a developing relationship with his high school ex, Cathy (Anne Archer), who he re-encounters at the reunion.

If Cathy, child in tow, suggests a future of settling down, so does a job offer from another classmate to work at a car dealership, trading in his rescue buoy for a stable 9 to 5. The dilemma is obvious but “Lifeguard” is impressive in staying true to its character. Even when Rick goes in for his job interview, he maintains the same disposition. If anything, he’s made with peace with who and what he is, even if that is at odds with the conventions around him, which gradually emerges as the real moral dilemma. In a scene where Rick has dinner with his folks, his dad, grousing about work and upset with his son’s supposed lack of purpose, hollers that life isn’t fair. Rick parries: “Who says life’s supposed to be fair?” That’s an obvious line, yes, but what is not obvious is who’s saying it. That line would normally be said to Rick; instead Rick is saying it to someone else. He resents being told his way of living is worthless, which Elliott plays straight to, his agreeably laconic air gradually giving way as the social pressure mounts.

The conclusion proves a little more welcomingly arty than I might have wagered, with Rick, weighing his options, plopping down on his lifeguard tower one California morning, not in his uniform, mind you, but denim, shirt and jeans, though barefoot, as if suggesting he is suspended between the two worlds. That’s how he looks too, the camera starting low, down on the beach, and then gradually lifting up and over the tower’s rail, finding Rick slumped and staring out at the water, a man who can barely bring himself to leave where he is. The sound of the waves in this moment assume a hypnotic quality, washing over him, lulling him into a false sense of security.

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