Talking Pictures, Last: Swimming To Cambodia

swimming-to-cambodia-2Searching for the “perfect moment” to post my appraisal of Jonathan Demme’s 1987 filming of the Spalding Gray monologue Swimming to Cambodia was bound to be frustrating.

The film hasn’t been available on DVD for some time (UPDATE: now it is, click above); And Everything Is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s “eulogy” to the late Gray–who died of an apparent suicide in 2004– premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January of this year but has yet to obtain a larger release date; and, of the three installments in my “talking” pictures miniseries (Part 1 was about My Dinner with Andre; Part 2 concerned Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio), this concluding post was destined to be the most difficult in any event: Demme and Gray’s film is emotionally full (and full of life) to begin with, and one can’t write about it these days without at least mentioning the circumstances of Gray’s death, a sad event made even worse as it was seemingly brought about by his own choosing.

But, since Gray himself spends considerable time with that “perfect moment” eluding him throughout the funny, gripping, touching, unsettling, invigorating, and purely human stories he tells in the film, now seems as good a time as any to proceed with a remembrance of the first—and best—of the movies made capturing Gray’s uniquely compelling voice.

Frustrated by the pursuit of a traditional acting career, the Rhode Island-born Gray turned to the format of the one-man show, stripping it virtually to the bone and depriving himself (mostly) of costumes, props, or other crutches. The result was a heavy burden to bear for any performer—Gray forced himself to rely principally on the spoken word, and all of the variety and drama he could bring to it.

Fortunately for him, his brand of chatty neuroticism found a home on both the stage and screen, turning Gray into an acclaimed performer with what one could describe as a quiet cult following.

Gray’s distinctive style of performance was deceptively simple. One man sitting at a desk, a small notebook opened in front, a glass of water. Some crisp lighting changes to enhance mood. Sometimes music. And, in the case of Swimming to Cambodia, a map—which helps him guide his audience to the specific place involved in the life-changing experiences he had while filming a small role in The Killing Fields for director Roland Joffé.

killing-fields-sam-waterstonJoffé—“a combination of Zorro, Jesus, and Rasputin”–was bravely undeterred by Gray’s admission that he knew nothing of the events the film depicted about the outbreak of war between the Cambodian army and the Khmer Rouge. The uprising of the Khmer Rouge, a Communist movement led by radical agrarian collectivist Pol Pot, quickly took hold of the destinies of two men: New York Times journalist Sidney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston in the movie), who was in country covering America’s secret bombing campaign spawned by the Vietnam War, and Dith Pran (Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor), the Cambodian photographer who allied himself with Schanberg but was not permitted to leave the country when Pot’s forces stormed the capital of Penom Penh in 1975. Schanberg and Pran were separated at the French Embassy, leading to Schanberg’s years-long search for his colleague. At last locating him in a Thai refugee camp—where his sidekick had survived years of starvation and torture–Schanberg was reunited with Pran…who then obtained a job at the Times.

Blown away by a story that sounded too “hopeful” to be true, Gray admitted he wasn’t a very “political” person, and had never voted in his life. To which Joffé responded:

“Perfect! We’re looking for the American ambassador’s aide.”

Interwoven with the story of Gray bit by bit becoming overwhelmed by the gravity of the story contained within The Killing Fields are the many diverting interludes involving Gray’s pursuit of that ever-elusive perfect moment—an indescribable event of great spiritual magnitude he chases whenever he visits an exotic land. The “perfect moment” for Gray represents an epiphany of some kind, a flash that allows him to experience closure during a particular journey and, in his words, to “come home.”

Gray’s adventures are spurred on in part by an influential companion on the shoot named Ivan Strasburg—head of the second camera unit, “devil in my ear” (as Gray calls him), a South African Mephistophelean figure who urges Gray to fully taste the local culture—beginning with the local marijuana, a mind-altering odyssey Gray relates in a stream-of-consciousness tale of unforgettably funny reefer madness.

If Ivan acts as the devil in his ear, Gray’s then-girlfriend Renée Shafransky becomes the counter-influence, supportive but frequently critical about Gray’s chronic dissatisfactions and impulsive acts. She, to Gray’s comic frustration, only wants to talk about “what’s going on in the moment” of their relationship while missing intense if passing pleasures like the sunsets on the Gulf of Siam.

swimming-to-cambodia-3Throughout the film, Gray goes from “light to dark” (a common strength of his works) telling wild tales of his relationship troubles, detailing his bacchanalian pursuits during his down time on the set of The Killing Fields, and perhaps most importantly, spinning a stranger-than-fiction story that exercised his sense of moral urgency enough to create this performance piece that seductively both entertains and enlightens.

In retrospect, it’s easy of course to point out how many signals Gray sent up about the phantoms that haunted him. It’s easy to see how his personality—a Larry David-esque irascibility married to a voracious appetite for adventure and a persistent frustration with both the possession and lack of self-knowledge—could drive him just as easily to despair as to joy. What grates on the nerves, however, and it is important to say I observe this only for me and without passing the slightest bit of judgment on his struggles, is how Gray’s death now casts a morbid shadow over his body of work on film.

Those unfamiliar with Spalding Gray should seek out this film (however you can until it re-emerges on home video) and the other filmed records of his performances—Terrors of Pleasure, Monster in a Box,and  Gray’s Anatomy—to see a spellbinding storyteller at the top of his game. His work in films as an actor was always fine and understated, but it is in the arena of the monologue that Gray truly shined.

The monologue—on the live stage or on the screen—is simultaneously the most isolating of theatrical gestures and the most connecting. Perhaps if only Gray had been able to patch more into the connection his fans felt to him and less into that sense of isolation, he might still be crafting marvelous revelations about life.

Somewhere, sometime, however, Spalding Gray must have found what he believed to be the last “perfect moment” he would ever discover, and took that opportunity to feel that awful closure deeply enough to abruptly end the exotic journey he was sharing with the rest of us.