Beyond love and money in Southern California

by Ernest Larsen

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 1, 18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

My reasons for going to see LIFEGUARD (directed by Daniel Petrie from a script by Ron Koslow) when it opened late June in every drive-in and local theater in Southern California were purely subjective insofar as that adjective applies to anything in life. I was camping for an extended time in a tent under a lifeguard station on a state beach near Malibu. A few moments after the sun went down on the beach I was watching it come up, much more picturesquely, in cinemascope. I'd already seen the L.A. Times’ Kevin Thomas’s unexpected rave (“one of the year’s best”), so I was anticipating something somewhat in the pattern of TAXI DRIVER and SHAMPOO (on an authentic 8 level): the job in the service of a myth. LIFEGUARD disarmed me, however. I'd misjudged it. It’s a much more insidious film than either TAXI DRIVER or SHAMPOO—more insidious because it attempts to influence a particular segment of the popular audience in a particular direction. It is worth examining just because it is so easy to pass over as another beach picture.

The all-white-sexy-young-fun-on-the-beach advertising campaign and the deliberate release for the summer exploitation circuit (co-featured in L.A. with THE ENDLESS SUMMER and later in San Francisco with HARRAD SUMMER) earmarks LIFEGUARD for the same audience of lower-middle class white adolescents that was the mainstay of the BEACH PARTY cycle. But, in fact, LIFEGUARD deliberately shies away from evoking the BEACH PARTY cycle’s mindless fun-loving spirit. That BEACH PARTY could devote itself exclusively to showcasing the extraordinary talents of Frankie and Annette testifies to a strong feeling of security and general well-being that the filmmakers thought prevailed among the youthful audience. Retrospectively we might detect an incipient hysteria in this depiction of hilarity. The early 60s were not what the filmmakers wanted us to believe they were. In any case, the spirit of fun gives way in LIFEGUARD to a grim dose of economic reality, which I will discuss in detail later. Where progenitor and heir do share ground is in the dismal regions of moral ideology.

Middle class teenagers are fated to act out their parents’ values or their reaction to them in the same arena in which they attempt to define their sexuality. In LIFEGUARD, as in life, both values and sexuality appear as limits rather than possibilities. The BEACH PARTY pictures depicted the agonies of the double standard in their blandest form. LIFEGUARD spices the action, but the double standard still operates as the social merger of sexual expression and bourgeois values. In the heyday of Doris Day we knew the way Annette was supposed to behave, and luckily (for the sanctity of Annette’s “reputation”) so did Annette. Popularizers of the sexual revolution have encouraged us to believe that things have changed. More significantly, the advent of the feminist movement demonstrated the necessity for change.

The message of LIFEGUARD is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The subject of the movie is the struggle of 33-year-old lifeguard Rick to resist the blandishments and warnings of just about everyone he knows—friends, relatives, and lovers—to quit his low status, poorly paid job and join the man’s world by becoming a Porsche salesman. Our only diversion from this absurd and as far as I know, unheard of, plot is Rick’s love life. In concert with the poverty of economic alternatives available (Porsche or the Pacific), on the level of heterosexual relationships the audience is offered three variations on the theme of the double standard. These variations chart the range of what is permissible in the filmmakers’ version of the adult world.

Unable to maintain the fiction that sex never actually occurs, the filmmakers turn to exploiting the opposite stereotype (from the male point of view): that sex is everywhere. Rick is characterized as the stud in need of a woman to humanize him. The nonentity who portrays him (Sam Elliott) is straight off the Marlboro “I like the box” billboard and is nearly as animated in expression. Whereas the white male sexual prerogatives both in film and in U.S. society have never been questioned (except by the feminist movement), the double standard has been shifted from the shoals of action (what she does) to the sands of motivation (why does she allow herself to do it). Of Rick’s three partners, one, a 17-year-old, mixed-up, part-time runaway, is allowed sex not for pleasure or experimentation—but only because she is too confused to be responsible for her own actions. Despite the fact that she seduces Rick (he fears her as “jailbait”), she remains innocent even while fucking. The soupy strains of a Paul Williams ballad (“Time and Tide”) play on the soundtrack over a discreet long shot of the lifeguard station after hours. Although the direction deemphasizes the physical act. Rick assumes an advisory role in loco parentis. She just happens to be a straight-A student, so Rick sends her back to her repressive existence: on to college. So much for the rebellion of youth: exploitative close ups of her teary-eyed face.

Rick’s high school sweetheart (enraptured reunion at the 15-year high school reunion) provides a subtler evocation of Eros in the service of morality. Even before the audience sees the sweetheart at the reunion, Rick’s salacious buddy is heard to ask whether they ever really made it as teenagers. Of course, as children of the repressed 50s. they didn't. And now in the repressive 70s (conformity internalized) Rick refuses, even at her invitation, to have sex with her that first night. So they wait a night. Her invitation is acceptable. She’s older, divorced, has a child, and, most important, she still loves him. The moral compunction involved here is not lost on teenage culture, which still thrives in its serious aspect less on the necessary identity between romantic love and the sexual act than on the necessity of “getting to know him or her first.” LIFEGUARD formalizes and trivializes these concerns by having Rick wait a night. The double standard comes into operation here by taking the decision out of the woman’s hands.

This point gains clarity if we examine the contingent role given to Rick’s other lover, a stewardess. Her odd propensity for having fun in bed—no accident that the audience gets to see her naked, not him or the “good” girls—is immediately chilled and given an unhealthy moral dimension by her mentioning post-coitus her interest in going off with a wealthy older man who'll pay her way. After this confession, apropos of nothing, she disappears from the rest of the film. Though it would be stretching a point to say that she makes her sexuality her own, it is clear that she at least intends to make use of it for herself. Within the context of the film, this measure of independence is not allowable. The woman’s right to sex for pleasure is still moralized out of existence.

The relentless irrelevance of the BEACH PARTY cycle concealed an exposition of moral ideology. To be specific, this meant a depiction of commodity sexuality epitomized by the title, HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. The values embodied in that title have not altered their basis in LIFEGUARD. One of the “comic” subplots involves 14-year-old Machine Gun (so named for his prowess in jerking off) who exists solely to feel up girls at the beach. In one sequence he and his friends tear off the top of a model’s bikini. The sexual violence timidly exhibited in the title of the earlier film is here casually portrayed at the level of a boy’s prank. The exploitation of previously taboo material (nudity, masturbation, etc.) in a film like LIFEGUARD, equipped with a persuasive amount of frankness in dialogue and an authentic milieu (the Southern California beach scene is detailed to the last grain of sand), has a highly specific function. It verifies for an impressionable audience that they are not seeing an exploitation picture like the BEACH PARTY flicks, a picture made for them, but an adult film. Furthermore, the moral earnestness of the film (which is only the counterpart of its vulgarity) seems grown-up, for the high minded tone violates the equation made in BEACH PARTY between triviality (rock music, surfing, and fun, fun, fun) and teenagers. Where irrelevance—that is, irrationality—once served to mystify, now reality—the appearance of rationality—serves the same function.

The BEACH PARTY pictures and LIFEGUARD both glorify Southern California beach life, but only a certain version of it, where middle class white families and kids out of high school and college for the summer gather. As the boys rub down their surfboards, the girls rub down their bodies with cocoanut butter and lie back to watch. Missing are the camping beaches (where I was staying), where somewhat more diverse groups intersect (tourists, Chicanos, hippies, R.Y. addicts, etc.); the private beaches, playgrounds for the rich; and, of course, the nude beaches, where bodies collect like exhibits in the morgue. A special case can be made of Venice Beach, where people seem to make the beach part of the semi-dropout lifestyle.

The beach picture, at least in part, owed its vogue to its glorification of the Southern California leisure milieu. For all the true miserliness of its presentation, it hinted that just as sexuality was a possible zone of freedom, so the metaphor of summer on the beach bespoke a privileged time of freedom before responsibility, the responsibility of adulthood. LIFEGUARD, on the other hand, plays a dirty trick on its audience by subverting the totem of that milieu, the guardian of public safety, the lifeguard. Freedom is driven from the beach by turning the tanned young god into a 33-year-old has-been. Rick poisons the illusion of free time, giving the entire film a sour taste. Not only is sexuality deformed—so is the surf. It is not a mistake to present this deformation as a possible state of affairs (after all, both sexuality and nature are deformed in “real life”). But LIFEGUARD’s version of reality is used to manipulate the audience much more forcefully than in the BEACH PARTY cycle.

The most intimate emotional experience of the teenage audience is humiliation. Without status in the world, the teenager attempts to forge an adult identity. The teen is typically stymied at every turn by the moral strictures and physical restrictions of parents and the school authorities, not to mention the frigid reception accorded any experimentation by the capitalist legal institutions. Concurrently, the conflicting demands of sexuality and propriety still maintain the teenager in a state of abasement in regard to his or her own sexuality and scope of physical expression.

Accordingly, the audience must identify with the experience of Rick who is humiliated repeatedly throughout the summer. Rick’s failure to enter the man’s world is, by the end of the film, mysteriously but securely tied to his initial failure to go to college. Rick’s father, reminded that Rick’s younger brother is about to graduate and get a good job “doing research” explodes, “When are you going to grow up?” Rick competes (test of manhood) in a team swimming race. Not only is he the slowest, but his team is saved from third place by a rookie lifeguard out of college for the summer. Rick’s ineptness at this contest and subsequent coughing fit is witnessed by the pitying 17-year-old, who in a previous scene blurts, “I didn't realize you were that old!” (Thirty-three is just this side of senility.) The high school reunion is a complete fiasco in which Rick is asked by everybody, “What are you doing now?” It’s not long before he begins to lie about his occupation. This reunion acts as an excruciating telescoping device for the audience, whose immediate context is high school or college, forced to identify with failure in the context of a high school reunion. The filmmakers cannily humiliate the audience—projecting failure into its future through the bourgeois technique of psychological identification. Even Rick’s erstwhile sweetheart (upwardly mobile art gallery director on La Cienaga in L.A.) is clear about her distaste for his vocation. Although she professes her love, his job presents an embarrassment.

The last third of the film is consumed with the making of an existential choice: Should Rick continue as a lifeguard or should he become, after the lucky offer of his rich high school pal, a Porsche salesman and earn $20,000 a year? A good argument could probably be made that in no other period could the alternatives be both so narrow and so falsely posed. With such an extraordinarily attenuated sense of the possibilities of life, LIFEGUARD reneges on the beach pictures’ obligation to project even a fantasy life for its audience. If this poverty of alternatives isn't enough (and it isn't: material poverty is also manifested as an object of anxiety—Rick’s father saying times are hard, worrying over collecting the pension due him), the portrayal of Rick and the choice that he makes mark LIFEGUARD even more conspicuously as a film of its time.

In U.S. films the male hero has typically been both aggressive and rebellious—he swims against the tide. Rick never does that except when he’s on the job rescuing a drowning bather. With his aggression dovetailing to the requirements of his work, Rick projects a falsified image of the U.S. worker, accepting the conditions of his job and even, by the end, satisfied with them. He measures his freedom by the fact that he doesn't have to wear a shirt. Rick submits to everything that comes his way. Stripped of any instincts of revolt, he submits quietly to his father’s outburst. He tells the rookie lifeguard the youth is getting a good deal in college. The 17-year old is told to go back to her parents—they'll be worried. In one of the film’s rare moments of introspection Rick confesses to his perplexed sweetheart that he likes his job because he never ties of watching the ocean. The stultifying boredom of his job is glibly apotheosized in a paean to nature—this is the margin of affirmation allowed such a hero.

LIFEGUARD explores the labor process in order to deny its substance, though less tangentially than either TAYIDRIVER or SHAMPOO. All three films are part of the nascent trend of exploiting the specific factual circumstances of work. The latter two use hairstyling and taxi driving less as a metaphor in their fictions than as a springboard to hurl ambitious mythic schemes at their audiences: the hip Hollywood hustler, the assassin lurking at the edge of the American Dream. These are the real myths energizing these movies, and the work itself fades into the background, often functioning as mise-en-scene.

LIFEGUARD at least has the merit of sticking to its subject. In all three films the worker’s product is his or her services. In the absence of the commodity we see a social (and by implication, sexual) interaction. Once placed into a leisure milieu, Rick’s labor is easily transformed into an element of sexuality. Zipped into his bathing suit, he flirts with the girls and offers sexual advice to all comers. Consequently, both labor and sex lose their separate contents. Labor is not alienated; it is part of the spectacle of beach life—“P.R.,” Rick calls it at one point. Lifeguarding is both romanticized (on the sexual level) and denigrated (on the economic level), often at the same time. It is an occupation easily exploitable by the filmmakers because of its purely visual physicality. Rick is allowed to be a captive of the ocean’s moods (this from a character robbed of all subjectivity) because this frees the director to show yet one more sunrise over the sea.

Pressured by his sweetheart’s invitation to live with her if he gives up his job. Rick must make a decision that has the force of a life decision. (We in the audience know this because he sits up all night looking out at the ocean.) So he renounces the money, prestige and privilege that go with being a salesman: “I can't do it—not even for Porsche.” And he loses the love of his life as well. The filmmakers attempt to pin his resolve on moral principle. But the exchange is irrational. Where in film history is there a hero who throws away love and money for a shit job? The situation is incredible, the passivity extraordinary, and both can only be attributed to cultural malaise, a malaise first apparent in the disaster films. Except that low budget LIFEGUARD lacks spectacle and the heroic trappings of stardom—we aren't dealing with McQueen or Newman.

Passivity becomes the prime virtue for the lower middle class hero. LIFEGUARD provides a direct cultural message about the parameters of acceptable behavior. The warning is given to the adolescent audience that they, like Rick, have two and only two choices: go to school or be beached forever. The film’s manipulations are menacing enough to stir the adolescent fears in many adults, for it refurbishes old American anxieties about measuring one’s relative success in competitive capitalist society. Reality was never so grimly codified, not even in BEACH BLANKET BINGO.