After reviewing a series of films that included a mediocre teen movie and two experiments - one an ambitious miss, the other a downright failure - Spalding Gray's "Swimming To Cambodia" seemed like a treat at the end of a maze, a light at the end of the tunnel - whatever you want to use, I still find this to be an excellent documentary of a stellar performance.
Here is an example of an experimental film that not only works, but works beautifully, mainly due to the talent of its only focus. Spalding Gray is an occasional actor - you may have spotted him recently, somehow finding himself in "How High". This 1987 documentary, however, is Gray's recounting of his experiences while shooting a small part in "The Killing Fields". Gray sits at a nearly bare desk on a nearly bare stage, accompanied only by a glass of water, a microphone and a couple of maps that he occasionally points at - and he talks, and talks and talks.
It's the way that he talks, though. Gray is masterful at using his voice to gain intensity, drama, wring emotion, gain an uneasy or major laugh. His stories go from being absurd to bizzare to tragic to horrifying to silly and hilarious, but with transitions with surprising smoothness. He is a riveting storyteller with incredible timing and his stories are fascinating. Demme orchestrates the camera work beautifully, focusing on the stage from different angles and pulling back subtly at times or pushing in gradually.
Gray does an excellent job going from story-to-story, building a fully realized vision of each small tale before marching forward. The stories range from minor moments to tragic and terrible historical incidents: Grey talks about everything from loud neighbors to searching for his "perfect moment" to politics to the horrors of the genocide in Cambodia.
The film may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's interesting to hear that Gray's performance of this piece was originally longer. Although a lot of people thought one man talking on stage wouldn't work, I think I could easily watch another hour of "Swimming To Cambodia". It's a riveting, original, fascinating film that I am still amazed by.
VIDEO: Seville presents "Swimming To Cambodia" in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Apparently, MGM has rights to the release (the MGM logo appears before the picture), but have not announced any plans for a North American release. Still, Seville has done a more-than-pleasing job with the 14-year-old low-budget picture. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture looks better than I've ever seen it. While not a very "visual" movie, the image appears sharper and cleaner than any prior editions that I've seen.
Flaws are very minor. The print seems almost entirely clean, with the exception of a few instances of very slight dirt during the opening and a couple of specks during the main presentation. Only a couple of hints of pixelation were seen, but no edge enhancement was spotted. A little bit of intentional grain shows through during a few scenes, but the grain was hardly noticable. The film's color palette is certainly basic, but appears accurately rendered here.
SOUND: The stereo soundtrack is, of course, all about Grey's dialogue, which sounds clear and crisp.
MENUS:: Slight animation and background sounds are both main and sub-menus are nice touches.
EXTRAS: Trailers for "Run Lola Run", "Gray's Anatomy", "Matewan" and "Swimming with Sharks".
Final Thoughts: A fascinating one-man performance that mixes in personal stories with discussions of historical events. Gray's marvelous delivery keeps the pacing rapid and the interest very high. Demme's minimalist approach is also very successful. Seville's DVD offers very good audio/video quality, but only a few trailers as supplements. Still, the film is definitely worth getting.
Note: This is a Canadian-exlusive Region 1 release that can be imported from online retailers such as videoflicks.com.