| Swimming to Cambodia


Jonathan Demme

USA, 1987


Review by Teddy Blanks

Posted on 06 April 2008

Source Evergreen Entertainment VHS

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Categories Spalding Gray: Monologues on Film

In the 1984 film The Killing Fields - a powerful, if sometimes plodding, depiction of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power and subsequent genocide of the Cambodian people after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam - Spalding Gray’s part is unremarkable. He plays the US Ambassador’s aide who leaks information to New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg about an accidental bombing by an American B-52. In this scene, when he delivers his only notable chunk of dialogue, Gray’s tone is blank, unspecific. He stutters. For much of the four or five minutes he spends onscreen, he sort of fades into the background.

Behind the scenes, though, he was soaking in everything around him: the generous catering at the hotel, the marijuana, the curiosities of Thai sex workers, and, most of all, the gorgeous beaches. He would eventually render his experience in Southeast Asia shooting The Killing Fields into Swimming to Cambodia, a monologue that would make him famous, and would be translated into one of the most epic, spastic, and erratically self-centered performances put to film. For the cinematic version of his monologue, Gray approached Jonathan Demme, who modeled the film after his Talking Heads concert documentary, Stop Making Sense. In both cases, the artist raised finances and found a distributor himself. The result fits nicely into of a string of artful, offbeat New York-centered movies that Demme made in the 80s, which include Something Wild and Married to the Mob, and are some of the most accomplished of his career.

Spalding Gray’s minimalist set: a small wooden chair and table, a microphone, a Ronald McDonald notebook, a glass of water. Behind him, a screen-printed backdrop with a hazy blue sky. Above him, a standard ceiling fan. You may not think that these props, plus one guy talking about himself for ninety minutes, would add up to something watchable. But in addition to the way Gray’s operatic telling of his stories draws you into his mad, knotty ego, Swimming to Cambodia trumps expectations through a few key creative decisions. Laurie Anderson’s score, for instance, with its shuffling sound effects and synth bass, helps shape the narrative, following the euphoric highs and lows of Gray’s enthralling performance. The music is so 80s, but in a delightful, avant-garde way. The sound effects, like a sudden jolt of vocal reverb, are similarly well-placed; they hit hard. Demme’s direction, as in Stop Making Sense, while unobtrusive to the point of seeming invisible, hinges on a few key cuts, zooms, and camera movements that enhance the tension inherent in in Gray’s monologue—perhaps even adding to it in ways Gray couldn’t have planned. What is left out makes these small moves so essential. We never see the crowd, and we aren’t given any phony camera tricks. It’s deadpan filmmaking: to the side of Gray’s head, we see pull-down strings for roll-up maps, two thin dangling black cords, a purist joke.

He is instantly engaging, and keeps things hopping along with rapid-fire anecdotes, observations, and theories from his own life. Often, Gray’s riffs feel a lot like a stand-up routine. He says the reason he moved to New York is so he can say he lives on “an island off the coast of America.” He talks about the difference between New Yorkers and other New Englanders through the scenario of asking a neighbor to turn down some loud music. (New Yorkers use more profanity.) In waiting to find out if he gets the part in The Killing Fields, he perfectly captures that human state of nervous hopefulness, from pretending he doesn’t care (“If I get it, I get it”) to actively trying to will himself into getting the part.

Gray was in his mid-40s by the time of Swimming to Cambodia, which is where many people first heard of him, but in it, he seems younger. He emits the shaky, precocious energy of an adolescent adopting the been-there-done-that tone of an experienced traveler, but his bright-eyed awe at the world around him betrays that image. He sports a thick New England accent that permeates the voices of all the people he brings into his story. Most hilariously, South African cameraman Ivan (“devil in my ear”) Strausberg comes off as a bizarre Jamaican-Bostonian mix as he calls out, “Spolding Mon!” One of the reasons Gray is so watchable is his ability to switch, quickly, back-and-forth between different characters in his story and his own persona in a way that feels almost as if there were more than one person on stage. During one bit where he encounters a crass naval officer named Jack Daniels on an Amtrak train, he reenacts the conversation by turning his head quickly to face another camera each time he switches personas. Demme’s cutting back and forth in this case is about as obtrusive as his hand ever gets, and it only serves to play up Gray’s natural theatricality.

He uses his conversation with Jack Daniels, red-blooded and obsessed with the Communist threat, to illustrate his feelings of isolation as a Northeast liberal during the Cold War. Daniels talks about the Soviet Union and nuclear war, and Gray wonders briefly whether he’s the crazy one for not being worried. It’s refreshing to see this film, made over 20 years ago, echoing the same sharp political divisions we’ve felt in America over the last decade.

But it’s Gray’s foray into politics, and history, that got him into trouble. The rhythm of Swimming to Cambodia is built up through a series of jarring juxtopositions. When he jumps from a particularly raunchy Thai burlesque act to describing mass killings by the Khmer Rouge, it’s a stark, sobering moment. He gets angry; he is filled with dread about the injustice. Pauline Kael, who was impressed with Gray as a performer, nonetheless called him “a total opportunist, and so unconsciously that it never even occurs to him that there’s anything wrong about using a modern genocidal atrocity story to work up an audience.” “He gives you old news,” Kael continues, “as if it were the subject of an investigative report.” Is she right? Is Spalding Gray’s indignant telling of the genocide in Cambodia inherently unethical? If it was in 1987, it sure doesn’t feel that way anymore. As in so many other films, time gives us new perspective on past controversy. In 2008, what Gray tells us is less a news report and more a history lesson. Many of us now (including myself) may not know very much about (or remember very succinctly) Nixon’s “Operation Menu,” and the secret American bombing of Cambodia. We may not know very much about Lon Nol, Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge. But Gray is not telling us about these events so much as he’s relaying how he felt when finding out about them. Knowing about the violent history that inspired The Killing Fields deepened his own experience of acting in it, and what’s wrong with that?

Yes, Gray does “heat up” his performance with these terrible true stories, but imagine if he’d decided to just not go into it. We’d have, essentially, a story of Gray landing a great part, being flown out to an exotic paradise, watching sex shows, swimming in the ocean, and fighting with his girlfriend. Fine. He has the charisma to pull it off. But including the history gives the movie an emotional core: Gray simultaneously enjoys the perks of location shooting in Thailand and is haunted by the events that allowed him to be there in the first place. The “modern genocidal atrocity story” makes his own story resonate. Its inclusion is precisely what makes Swimming to Cambodia the best of Gray’s filmed monologues.

The narrative of Swimming to Cambodia is largely driven by Gray’s search for a Perfect Moment. He comes back to the idea often, in fights with his girlfriend and trips to the beach, hoping, forcing, wondering when it will come. It’s on one of these beaches that he finally gets his Perfect Moment, that single instance of transcendence he desperately needs to have before he leaves. It’s a euphoric moment for us, too. As the synthesized string noises swell, his tempo does too, and he tells us about swimming off the coast of Phuket with Ivan, being finally able to let go and venture into the deep end. (Having left his wallet on shore, his anxiety about shark and waves is displaced—he has only his money to worry about.) Reading it here, the Moment doesn’t seem extraordinary, but, with Spalding Gray, what he tells us is not as important as how he’s telling it. The lights go up: we can clearly see the projection of the sky behind him. His words coax us into the Moment with him, and turn into music.

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