Archive for April 1987


April 17, 1987

Diane Keaton’s directorial debut is somewhat akin to her one-time paramour Al Pacino’s directorial debut, Looking for Richard: Both are contemplative, off-the-cuff pieces augmented by a variety of opinions. Pacino’s film studied Shakespeare by way of Richard III; Keaton tackles nothing less than the concept of Heaven and the Big Questions about it. She doesn’t appear in the film; the most recognizable face here (aside from the actors in the many vintage film clips) is boxing promoter Don King. Broken up into sections headed by conversation-starters (some repeated) like “Are you afraid to die?” and “Is there sex in Heaven?”, the movie is heavily weighted towards Christianity and true believers; the few skeptics we see are placed opposite devout Christians in debate.

Some of the interviewees are down-to-earth, some loopy, all fascinating. Keaton uses tons of old movie footage ranging from Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc to Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, and if her choices in editing this footage (and in photographing some of the interviews) are a tad pretentious, nothing she does is nearly as weird as some of the vintage televangelist broadcasts and Christian-scare reels we see. Of necessity the movie asks questions without arriving at any answer except, perhaps, the oddly moving “goodbye” montage at the end. Does Keaton herself believe in Heaven? You wouldn’t know from the film, and that’s probably her highest achievement. Though I suppose Keaton agrees with Belinda Carlisle that Heaven is a place on Earth, since she directed the video for that Carlisle single later the same year.

Swimming to Cambodia

April 2, 1987

cambodiaWhen Spalding Gray disappeared a few years back, and was later discovered to have committed suicide, a lot of us were shocked without actually being surprised. Gray was a complicated man, wracked with neuroses that informed his famous monologues as much as they likely made his existence a burden. Swimming to Cambodia, smoothly directed by Jonathan Demme, was the film that broke Gray into the near-mainstream after years of being known mainly to Off-Broadway audiences.

Gray’s swooping, neurotic delivery carries us through his story of how he came to be cast in a small role in 1984’s The Killing Fields (we see clips of his scenes in the film), his experiences on location (mostly downtime filled with sex shows and “Thai stick”), and his education about the Cambodian suffering under the Khmer Rouge. Some critics, such as Pauline Kael, questioned Gray’s motives in dealing with real atrocities in the midst of generally whimsical material. “It’s a superlatively skillful piece of filmmaking,” wrote Kael (an admirer of Demme’s work), “but at its center is a man who doesn’t know that heating up his piddling stage act by an account of the Cambodian misery is about the most squalid thing anyone could do.” I can understand the point — what if a monologuist had been an extra in Schindler’s List and devoted the middle section of his otherwise comedic performance to describing the conditions at Auschwitz? — but I don’t necessarily agree with it.

It’s clear that Gray wants us to perceive the arc of consciousness of a non-political man who starts off worrying about trivial things, learns about true atrocity in detail, then gradually goes back to worrying about trivial things again, because he has to. But perhaps now he has some slight perspective on things. I also don’t think Gray chose the subject just to “heat up” his act; would Kael have preferred him not to discuss the Cambodian history at all? Gray pulls together genocide, pleasure-seeking, military paranoia, filmmaking, and even an anecdote about rude neighbors to paint a coherent portrait of aggression.

Demme shot the film for $485,000 at the Performing Garage in New York, over the course of three performances. Unlike Nick Broomfield in Monster in a Box — the second of the three Gray concert films (Steven Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy rounds out the trilogy) — Demme doesn’t try to jazz things up with flashy editing; the editing here (by Carol Littleton) feels completely organic, building the kind of rhythm that amounts to a better-than-live experience — the filmmakers know exactly when to pull back and when to move in. John Bailey’s smooth cinematography and Laurie Anderson’s evocative score help to take us to the mindscapes Gray is describing. (Anderson’s score is never intrusive here, unlike in Monster in a Box, where her music verged on overbearing — sometimes Gray seemed to be shouting above it.) By its talky nature the film is necessarily not as electrifying as Demme’s musical pieces, but it’s compelling enough. Spalding Gray, we hardly knew ye.