In 10 Words or Less
Spalding Gray takes the film stage for the first time
Loves: Good monologues,
Likes: Spalding Gray, The Killing Fields
Dislikes: International politics
Hates: The loss of Gray
The Story So Far
Monologist Spalding Gray committed several of his one-man performances to film, but his first was Swimming to Cambodia, constructed around the story of his role in the film The Killing Fields and brought to the screen by director Jonathan Demme. It was originally released on DVD in Canada in June of 2002, and DVDTalk has a review of that release.
Gray's Gray's Anatomy, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is, in my opinion, and that of many others, the finest of Gray's filmed monologues, capturing Gray at his best in the most creative way yet. However, this work was the culmination of years of experience and experimentation, building on his previous films, which started with Swimming to Cambodia. Shot at Gray's regular performance spot, New York City's The Performing Garage, by Jonathan Demme, around the time of his breakout film Something Wild, it set the template for what a Gray film could be, raising a performance by a man sitting at a desk to a higher visual level.
Taking a seat behind a simple desk with a microphone, a notebook and a glass of water, as he did at the start of all of his monologues, Gray wastes no time getting right into the story of his participation in the film The Killing Fields, in which, playing an ambassador's aide, he made his major motion picture debut. Filming in Thailand, he's thrown into a foreign world of drugs and sex, while at the same time learning all about the Khmer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia through his work on a movie, which makes for an unusual set of experiences that leaves him thinking a lot about his life and what he wants from it.
Gray's two biggest strengths have always been his ability to take you along on his journeys, and to paint pictures of unique characters and speak with their voice. This performance is no different, as he takes you on intense drug-fueled freak-outs, into Bangkok whorehouses full of inequities, onto gorgeous Thai beaches with death-defying South Africans and stressful film sets that find him mired in take after unsuccessful take, all in vivid detail, thanks largely to his dynamic vocal style and perfect sense of timing. You'll long remember his movie pal Ivan, even if you've never seen him in your life.
While this film is full of funny moments and Gray's amusingly astonished reaction to the ridiculousness he encounters, as well as bits from his life in New York, like running from angry bat-wielding youths, it's also impressively informative about the history in Cambodia that the film dramatized. If you knew nothing about Pol Pot and his group's savage rampage through Cambodia, Gray offers a quality overview of the country's history, which gives a serious background to the frivolity of the movie business.
Though Soderbergh would raise the bar in terms of giving Gray's stories visual enhancement, Demme and his team gets credit for doing it first, utilizing lighting, sound effects and practical visual effects, along with smart use of camera angles and editing to bring new life to Gray's words, creating an alternate reality inside of The Performing Garage, where a beach, helicopters and a brothel all share the same space. Watching Gray live was an engaging experience due to his energy, but this pumped-up performance is the next best thing, if not all-together better.
A one-disc release, this DVD arrives in a clear, standard-width keepcase with a two-sided cover featuring a picture of Gray on the inside. The disc has a static anamorphic widescreen menu that offers the choice to watch the movie or check out the extra. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is not the finest ever committed to DVD, with noteable shimmering, noise and jittering, as well as bits of dirt and damage throughout. The level of fine detail is decent, high enough to see the sweat on Gray's forehead and bits of spittle, though his hair isn't well defined. Color and black levels are good, capturing all the lighting effects used on the stage well.
Presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, the sound here is impressive in creating the film's unusual soundscape, delivering the movie's aggressive mix of sound effects, score (by performance artist Laurie Anderson) and Gray's voice up-front and center-balanced. Separation between the elements is limited, which creates a unique feel, but it all sounds fine, with the occasional bit of audience reaction coming through subtly.
The only extra is a nearly 17-minute interview with Demme, who goes into great detail about the construction of the film, including the effort that went into crafting the performance, which was originally two and a half times longer, and what's important when pulling together a "performance film." A commentary might have been overkill on a film consisting mainly of a guy at a desk, so this featurette, with the enthusiastic Demme does the trick in filling in the background and illustrating the making of the movie.
The Bottom Line
Thankfully all of Gray's monologues filmed for the screen have now received legitimate releases in the U.S., and though Shout! Factory's DVD release of Swimming to Cambodia can't stack up with Criterion's Blu-Ray beauties, it's presence is nonetheless appreciated, as it's a fascinating film that deserves to been seen by fans and new audiences alike. The quality is good, not great, but the one extra is a terrific inclusion. If you've enjoyed his other monologues, this is a must-see, and is a fine entry-point for newcomers to Gray's artistry.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.