Spalding Gray takes the film stage for the first time
The Story So Far
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.
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 Bottom Line