The eye is the window to the story
Though some consider his earlier (and more serious) Swimming to Cambodia to be his best film work, Gray's Anatomy is a far more complete work of art, thanks to the effort on both sides of the camera. Gray, telling the story of a condition that threatens to render him blind in one eye, and the efforts to stave it off, is perfection in his voice, delivery and pacing, while Steven Soderbergh, in an experimental, palette-cleansing stage before he made his mainstream mark, took some of the ideas Jonathan Demme put in place in Cambodia and filtered them through his artistry to create an outstanding visual representation and enhancement of Gray's words. Together, they crafted an experience like none other I've ever had while watching a movie, a monologue or pretty much anything else.
As referenced above, my ability to experience anything involving trauma to the eyes is minimal at best. Mention or show any potential injury to an eye, and a chill goes through my body, my knees go weak and my breath catches in my throat. So an entire 79 minute film dedicated to the puckering of the covering of the eye, and the possible need for surgery on said eye, is the equivalent of a horror film to me. Starting off with people, shot in stark black and white, telling awful tales of damage to their eyes, the film starts off inspiring cringes, before Gray takes his traditional seat behind a desk and begins his own story of diminished sight, and the psycho-spiritual journey through medicine and healing he takes in search of a cure. Frequently hilarious, especially when he tries an Indian sweat lodge with the aid of the near-mythical Azaria Thornbird and when he visits the office of Dr. Ron A. Ax in New Jersey, but equally thought-provoking, Gray is an amazing storyteller and a master of his own instrument.
Soderbergh is equally as masterful in presenting Gray's stories, telling the same stories around him, creating settings through props, projects and lo-fi special effects. While Demme did a nice job of making one of Gray's sit-down monologues visually interesting through effective lighting, Soderbergh made something entirely new. Perhaps one day we'll be able to share what we see inside our heads, but until then, this film is as close as we get, seeing what Gray is talking about in the air between us. Gray had an incredible gift for crafting an image with just his words and voice, but the way Soderbergh enhances and magnifies those images to make them more engaging and enveloping is astounding. Via translucent backgrounds and silhouettes, the segment where Gray shares his experience with a Filipino psychic surgeon becomes a mad crimson circus, while the visit to Dr. Ax is an acid trip. As someone who had the good fortune to see Gray perform a monologue live, I can say with no exaggeration that Gray live was a show, but this movie is an experience.
Per the disc's booklet, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this Blu-Ray is drawn from the original 1997 audio mix, getting an upmix to surround sound. The resulting sound doesn't overdo the aural gymnastics (it is, after all, a guy telling a story), mainly existing to give additional heft to the music. Otherwise, it's a pretty straightforward presentation, keeping Gray's voice clear and center-focused, with no noticeable distortions.
A pair of interviews, one with Soderbergh (12:14) and one with Gray's ex-wife and collaborator Renee Shafransky (18:00) , sheds light on both Gray and the film, with Soderbergh talking about how he became involved, his approach to the concept and the challenges the film's budget presented, and Shafransky talking more about the man she knew so well. Together, they add some fine background to the package.
In one of those odd bits of collateral that Criterion tends to turn up, we get a 16:22 clip of the surgery at the center of the monologue, titled "Swimming to the Macula." As someone severely squeamish about eyes, I was surprised to find it not hard to watch. I was thinking, the footage of Dave Foley's Lasik surgery on the Same Guys, New Dresses DVD was much worse than...OH MY GOD. At about the 11 minute mark, a door to my innermost fears was kicked open and the screen exploded into horrific close-up footage of an eye WITH A NEEDLE MOVING THROUGH IT. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Nononononononononono. No.
Well, let's try and wipe that nightmare away with the returning trailer for Gray's Anatomy. Amusing, but definitely a product of its time.
In addition to the on-disc extras, there's another of Criterion's handsome insert booklets, this one featuring an article on the film by Amy Taubin, along with credits, some stills and details on the disc.
The Bottom Line