What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is not being done as part of a blog-a-thon. Instead, this is a monthly event hosted by MovieRob called Genre Grandeur. The way it works is every month MovieRob chooses a film blogger to pick a topic and a movie to write about, then also picks a movie for MovieRob to review. At the end of the month, MovieRob posts the reviews of all the participants.
For October of 2022, the honor of being the “guest picker” went to Ryan of Ten Stars or Less. The topic is “Movies Directed by the Main Actor/Actress.” Could there be a better topic for a bunch of self-publishing bloggers? I’m not sure there is, which is why this makes the perfect time for me to return from my health-related summer-plus long hiatus from the film blogging world.
This film is a “deep cut” from the “salad days” of the Independent film movement of the 1990s…when cable channels like Sundance and IFC were commercial-free oases of wonder in what became the cable-driven desert of our day. Before the dunes of intellectual desiccation swept over both networks because some corporate conglomerate pinheads doomed them to showing reruns of Law and Order and Hogan’s Heroes, gems like Walking to the Waterline got routine exposure. Today, it would never see the broadcast schedule because it lacks broad appeal and doesn’t cater to a fringe group those same pinheads think represent a majority. Before you say it, the popular streaming services of today share the same problem.
Anyway, this film is such a “deep cut” that I couldn’t find a trailer for it from my usual sources. Instead, it is so not seen as a revenue source that I found the whole movie el freebo as seen in the YouTube embed above. As such, do yourself a favor and give yourself a chance to take all this
In keeping with the theme of this event, Walking to the Waterline was written, directed, and stars Matt Mulhern. Americans would most likely know Mulhern from several television appearances, most notably from Major Dad, a CBS sitcom that ran from 1989-1993 in which Matt Mulhern starred as Lieutenant Eugene Holowachuk. Mulhern also has several “big screen” credits to his name, the biggest likely being the role of the brutish Joseph Wykowski in 1989’s Biloxi Blues.
Walking to the Waterline opens with Francis McGowan (played my Matt Mulhern) rolling into his home town of Longport, New Jersey; a typical seaside Jersey Shore town where nothing really happens when it’s not the summer tourism season. At this point, the viewer knows nothing about Francis, but he is shown in a house laying on a couch watching television.
As he’s flipping through the channels, he stops on a program in which he is clearly one of the main characters. While this is clearly triggering memories for Francis, an old acquittance named Duane Hopwood (played by Alan Ruck) appears, ostensibly to set the tone that Francis is a minor television “celebrity” who is back in his home town to deal with his father’s recent death.
From the beginning, it is clear the townspeople see McGowan as a honest-to-goodness star; a view McGowan does not share. This tone is re-enforced in the next scene when McGowan meets Lucy Bammer (played by Hallie Foote), who is a park ranger and tour guide at one of the local seaside attractions. She offers him a free tour, which serves to both offer an underpinning for the town’s raison d’être and to begin building a bond between Francis and Lucy.
The tone-setting is nearly complete when Francis is on the phone with his wife Terry (played by Karen Mulhern) and two children when Duane re-appears…a development Francis is less than happy about. By now, the first-time viewer should get the sense Francis is not exactly proud of his background. The coup dé grace for establishing the framework comes with a flashback scene to Francis’ childhood.
This sets the stage for a furtive beach stroll fore Francis where both he and Lucy reveal that in their own ways, they are struggling with parental issues. Must to Francis’ chagrin, a nameless beachcomber (played by Hal Holbrook) “outs” Francis as a television figure.
Now, three things happen. It becomes crystal-clear Francis is not interested at all in re-living the past or being recognized from a television show. His avoidance of Duane exemplifies that. But on the other side of the same coin, Lucy’s ignorance of Francis’ minor celebrity status both galvanizes his wish to remain anonymous in Longport and serves to further their relationship. However, the scent of a plot twist is offered by the phone-call scenes between Francis and Terry which show that while he has little more than disdain for his past life, he’s also not enamored with his current one.
In another example of the telephone as a tool of discovery, Francis is shown trying to call his agent Matthew Woods (played by Matthew Broderick) and being road-blocked by Woods’ assistant Paul (played by Markus Flanagan).
As Francis’ mood toward his current situation darkens, Duane emerges with the nearly-perfect “black” humor relief. The scene in which be begs Francis not to avoid him, then tells him “this is Longport, New Jersey…you’re a fucking star!” is done with just the right amount of endearing, reality-driven sadness and a mutual blindness to the power of perspective which makes both Francis and Duane equally and simultaneously deserving of the viewer’s empathy and derision.
Both Mulhern and Ruck pay their respective characters with the perfect blend intensity and pathos that makes you spend the rest of the film trying to figure out if Francis is really just a self-absorbed prick or being driven into early on-set “mid-life crisis” by a “perfect storm” of circumstances…or if Duane is dancing on the fringes of psychosis or just being awakened into the awkward realities of being a lonely failure.
To me, that’s the true genius of this film; I’m not sure how anybody in or beyond their mid 30’s can’t identify with at least parts of Francis or Duane…if not bits of both. We all have our own reasons for identifying with one or both of them, but the tie that binds all those reasons is actually rather simple.
It’s all about escapism.
If you think about it, Duane uses Francis to escape the realities of his life. Even though Francis thinks being an out-of-work actor makes him “dog dick in Hollywood,” to Duane that easily beats being a floor boss in a crappy seaside casino. Francis uses Lucy for exactly the same reason. To him, she represents everything he wants to get away from; she doesn’t care about his career, and she’s not a “pain in the ass” like his wife. However, even if he doesn’t want to admit it, Francis knows that Lucy is also the embodiment of the inescapable beauty and inherit flaw in escapism.
It can never beat reality.
At first, that may seem a bit nihilistic, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Escapism would have no reason to exist without the harsh nature of reality. Moreover, one can make the argument that escapism can bring about new realities. Escapism forming a new reality is the entire reason for Lucy’s character to exist.
It works like this. At first, her affair with Francis is exactly what you would expect given the rest of the film. There’s a moment when Francis and Lucy realize they are falling in love, at which point the escapism of a new relationship obfuscates the reality that he is married with two children.
Francis has already constructed an alternate reality to shield himself from the death of his father, his “fame” in Longport despite the fact he’s out of work, and the fact he’s not happy in his marriage. But Lucy has managed to avoid realizing her need for an escape until Francis enters her life. Once escapism visits her, her chance to enjoy it is blissfully short.
She knew from the start that Francis was married, but she doesn’t let that stop her from jumping headlong into some escapism of her own. But she gets her own “perfect storm” when she gets fired from her job because she missed two days playing “footsie” with Francis. Combined with everything else, Lucy’s escapism comes to a screeching halt; in turn she does the same for Francis.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
This movie is the perfect analogy for why lovers of sport and lovers of film are the way we are. That’s why I picked this movie for my return, because it’s the one that made me realize just what the hell the silliness that is this blog is all about. There’s been plenty of times when I’ve been told people enjoy my comparison between sports and cinema. To me, those comparison have the same source; sports and movies both are all about entertainment…and the soul of entertainment is escapism.
Think about it. The whole point behind entertainment is to take the minds of those being entertained off whatever drudgery their real lives contain. Seen from that perspective, there’s really no difference between a sporting event and a movie; they serve the same purpose. In it’s own weird way, Walking to the Waterline is the perfect example of that.
Start with the keyword “perspective;” it’s the “prequel” to escapism. To see that, all you need to do is look at the world view of this movie’s three main characters.
Let’s start with Duane. Let’s be honest, Duane’s life sucks, and he knows it. That’s why he finds vicarious escape in Francis, because from Duane’s point of view, Francis’ life is awesome. Meanwhile, Francis is desperate to escape his life, which is the foundation of his attraction to Lucy, who is the one who brings this all back to reality (more on that in a bit).
That brings us to the next keyword: “circumstance.” That’s what brings them all together, but to convey it’s message, Walking to the Waterline has to answer the question as to what happens when we want an escape, but it doesn’t just fall into our laps?
Here’s where sports and movies enter the picture. Realistically, they are both escapism on demand. If you doubt that, go back to the scene in the beginning where Francis was channel-surfing. What is television if not immediate escapism? Having said that, what are two incredibly popular vectors of escapism on television for those of us who don’t have their own sit-coms? Give yourself a cigar if you said “sports and movies.”
To get specific, here’s how Walking to the Waterline is the perfect example of the power of perspective and escapism. It’s all in the characters. Again, let’s start with Duane. While I may be wrong, he doesn’t really strike me as a movie fan. While they may have the occasional “guilty pleasure,” it’s been my experience that the average devotée of Turner Classic Movies doesn’t lower themselves to schlocky network TV sit-coms. Not to mention, since Duane works in a casino in New Jersey, a state which has had legal sports gambling since the 1970, there’s NO WAY sports is an escape for him. After all, do you think chefs unwind in front of the Food Network?
From the jump, Lucy makes it clear she doesn’t watch television, which not only makes her attractive to Francis as his escape, it also gives her the gravitas for our later re-entry into reality. But for now, she serves the next link in the chins of examples as to why this movie proves my point about the common ground between sports and movies.
More importantly, the fact that both Duane and Lucy are oblivious to sports and movies brings us right back to the second keyword. This cements the need for circumstance to serve as the catalyst for everybody’s chance at escapism.
Circumstance does this by creating the opportunity for forming the bonds between these characters. In order for Walking to the Waterline to be the perfect example of the escapist power of sports and movies, it brilliantly doesn’t use either, because circumstance circumvents their need.
If you’ve seen this film, you understand what I mean. For the first time viewer, keep in the back of your mind how much this film wouldn’t work if all of the bond-forming took place via “traditional” escapism. The relationship between Duane and Francis never reaches it’s necessary depth if they are simply cracking beers over a football game. The romance between Lucy and Francis would quickly become tiresome if we watched them falling in love over the shopworn “dinner and movie.”
In other words, Walking to the Waterline our second keyword “circumstance” piggy-backs off the first one “perspective” to give the viewer the ability to see the power of the escapism rather than the vehicle used to get there. That twist is why Walking to the Waterline is the perfect example of how the want of escapism binds fans of both sports and movies.
The Moral of The Story:
Are you really surprised that a quirky independent film is the shining example of the raison d’être of a quirky independent blog?
In Walking to the Waterline, Francis’ sit-com Anchors Aweigh is a thinly-disguised reference to Mulhern’s Major Dad.
Matt Mulhern also stars in One Crazy Summer, a title which also figures prominently in the explanation of the cause of my aforementioned summer-plus long hiatus.
Even if you don’t recognize Mulhern, this film is full of faces you will know, most of whom have either worked with him on other productions and/or are friends of his.
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