Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 06 April 2008
Source New Line Home Video VHS
Reviews Swimming to Cambodia
Reviews Gray’s Anatomy
Categories Spalding Gray: Monologues on Film
About fifteen minutes into Monster in a Box, the second of Spalding Gray’s filmed monologues, there is a moment of self-promotion that is glaringly out of place. He stops the action to shamelessly plug Swimming to Cambodia, the first of his filmed monologues. “If you haven’t seen it,” he says, “you should.” He goes on to qualify that statement with some obligatory jokey self-deprecation, but one can’t escape the feeling that not only does he mean it, he is also right. Before you can enjoy this movie, you really should see that one. Monster in a Box is a work that could not exist without its predecessor: as a film, it is hugely indebted to it, and as a monologue, it is mostly about how Gray’s life changed when he became famous as a result of Cambodia’s acclaim.
In Monster in a Box, our beloved narrator tells us about moving to L.A, “doing lunch,” surviving his first earthquake, turning down offers, and traveling around the world on the movie studios’ dime. As usual he does this while seated at a wood kitchen table with a glass of water and a microphone, but this time he also has with him a perversely large, loosely bound manuscript—a tome. It is the first 900-or-so pages of Impossible Vacation, the novel he’s working on. He calls it “The Monster.” He keeps it in a box.
Gray will periodically interrupt his depiction of whichever personal anecdote he’s relaying and point to a spot somewhere deep in The Monster. He’ll switch to whatever was going on in the life of Brewster North, his novel’s protagonist (and, we assume, Gray’s fictional surrogate), at that time in his writing process. He uses these interstitial bits to frame the narrative of his monologue, and as a clever way of inserting into his performance what we can only guess are exaggerations of stories from his own formative years, while reminding us that everything going on in his life now is either what’s happening while he’s not writing, or a direct result of his inability to do so. Essentially, this is the story of all the pesky international film festivals, HBO specials and starring turns on Broadway that get in the way of him finishing his book. Luckily, Gray is keenly aware of how this premise comes off. For a man with such pungent neuroses and egoism, he is startlingly grounded; one comes away relieved that it’s him all this stuff is happening to, and not someone less likable.
If he showed a tendency toward stand-up comedy in Swimming to Cambodia, here he is often in full-on Woody Allen mode, especially during his initial observations on Los Angeles. Nobody there walks—they drive everywhere! Even the cashiers at the grocery store are working on a screenplay! Movie types will take you to lunch and pay you just to find out if you have an “idea”! “There are no drugs left in Los Angeles,” he says, “the new drug in Hollywood is health.” (Appropriately, the sole “Coming Attraction” on my VHS copy of this film was Robert Altman’s The Player. These are movies made for people who love to hate L.A.) We forgive Gray these tired remarks, which sound like they might come from a first-round-out contestant on Last Comic Standing, because he knows how clichéd they are. He is simply surprised they are also true. We like to think of reductive stereotypes as completely baseless, or at best cruel embellishments of insignificant truths. In Spalding Gray’s experience, though, L.A. is as vapid as everyone says it is.
Of course, there is an upside to Spalding Gray the comedian, and it’s simple: he’s very funny. He really gets going when he and his girlfriend (and co-writer/producer) Renee Schafransky are invited to screen Swimming to Cambodia as one of only a few American movies at a Soviet film festival. Gray is most effective as a fish out of water, so it’s not surprising that this trip to Russia ends up being the funniest story he tells on film. Part of what makes it so is his Russian accent. Gray’s Russians talk in deep, booming voices, echoing but empty, confident and confused. On TV news, they simply read aloud articles from the morning paper, as the camera zooms in on specific paragraphs. In his impressions of the newscasters, he speaks a sort of poker-faced quasi-Russian, and you can’t help laughing. In other instances, Gray merely displays a ‘dark wit,’ or is theoretically funny, but too esoteric to garner more than a smirk, but in the final third of this monologue he lets loose, treating us to an arsenal of silly voices, madcap mishaps and even the threat of being pelted with fruits and vegetables. At one point, he actually gets up from behind his desk, stands, and demonstrates the precise way of rolling up his pant legs that got him thrown out of a Soviet art museum for “impersonating royalty.”
Monster in a Box, thought its content may lack the emotional and political core of its predecessor, is a genuinely entertaining monologue put on by an actor in the peak of his abilities. In many ways, Gray has improved greatly as a performer. He is more animated, has a better grasp on rhythm and structure and connects more adamantly with his audience. But what makes this movie ultimately feel like a minor pit stop in between Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy, his final filmed monologue, is that its production so closely resembles that of Swimming to Cambodia. The music by Laurie Anderson, which sounds like bonus tracks from Cambodia’s soundtrack, is part of the clone problem. But most of the blame lies on the director. Nick Broomfield is a career documentarian, most famous for video rental hits such as Kurt & Courtney and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, and without an original idea of what to do with Spalding Gray, he decides to replicate Johnathan Demme’s approach. The trouble is, he doesn’t have nearly the amount of grace and precision needed to pull it off.
The modernist point-and-shoot minimalism of Cambodia is part of a concert film philosophy Demme has revisited and perfected throughout his career. Broomfield may think he is laying off, but his decisions feel obtrusive and confused. His cuts are spasmodic; he is habitually too close, too far away, too mobile, or too static. What really bugs me, and maybe this was Gray’s instruction and not Broomfield’s concept, is that Monster in a Box doesn’t try anything new. Conventional wisdom may say that there is a finite number of ways to film one person talking for 90 minutes, but Gray is hardly a conventional performer, and he deserves a director who can think, well, outside the box.