Swimming to Cambodia
When 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.