by Heath Holland
In the iconic stoner comedy Dazed and Confused, we meet a character named David Wooderson, played by Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson is in his early twenties but still socializes and dates high school students. Even though he should be moving into another phase of his life, he can’t let go of his former glories and face the reality of stepping into adulthood. Have you ever wondered where Wooderson might have been ten years later? In a weird sort of way, 1976’s Lifeguard gives us the answer.
Sam Elliott (Frogs, Road House), a serious contender for the most macho man ever award, plays Rick, a man in his thirties who spends his days as a lifeguard at a southern California beach. He’s not just any lifeguard, though; he’s the best of the best, saving lives, solving problems, and serving as a proto-Hasselhoff ideal. He’s seen and done it all and is now a veteran of the scene, commanding the respect of the sun bathers and his co-workers alike.
But Lifeguard finds Rick at a crossroads. Against his better judgment, he’s begun a sexual relationship with an underage girl, played by Kathleen Quinlan (American Grafitti, Apollo 13), a dalliance that he knows will only bring trouble. At the same time, he attends his high school reunion and reconnects with a former flame, played by Anne Archer, who was also in another movie from the 1976 series, Trackdown. Archer’s character is divorced and raising a young child by herself, and she and Rick seem to pick up right where they left off years ago. Rick is now faced with a choice: does he continue to live a carefree lifestyle that offers him no challenges and small rewards, or does he let it go in favor of a meaningful relationship and future?
In this way, the movie embodies a sense of experience and fatigue that is inherent in a lot of films from this time period, but also one that’s hard to describe. You see it in John Travolta’s performance a year later in Saturday Night Fever and you see it in Gene Hackman’s performance in The French Connection from a few years earlier. It’s a weariness, a moral grayness brought on by society and its choices, as people metaphorically close their eyes and do whatever they have to do in order to survive. This movie makes it understandable and even acceptable that Rick’s suffering from arrested development. In fact, I use the word “suffering,” but this movie might even disagree with that assessment. It places no judgment on Rick’s status as the biggest fish in the small pond. It occasionally feels as if it’s celebrating it.
Lifeguard is directed by Canadian filmmaker Daniel Petrie, probably most recognized for 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun. Given Petrie’s pedigree, the laid-back, observational style of directing appears to be a deliberate choice. This is no after school special and morality is not crammed down our throats. Just as I observed with another movie during this 1976 series, Shoot, there’s an argument to be made for each side, with Petrie allowing the viewer themselves decide if Rick has made the right decisions.
Finally, I can’t end without talking about Paul Williams. Yep, the real superstar of the “Back to 1976” series is back yet again with a song contribution “Time and Tide,” which sounds a lot like a later-period Beach Boys song. I believe this is the 114th appearance of Paul Williams during this series, making him by far the hardest working person in the movie biz of 1976. While I’m talking about the music, I do want to point out how cool the soundtrack is for Lifeguard. It’s got a very trippy, happy seventies jazz-type thing going on, with some Moog synthesizer added in for good measure. If this soundtrack existed on its own, I’d add it to my collection toot sweet.
Get more Heath Holland at his site Cereal at Midnight!