Swimming to Cambodia

If you know Spalding Gray, you know what this movie is, and what a crime it is for it to be unavailable in the digital world. If you don’t know who he was, this is your chance to catch up on a true American original- the man who single-handedly took the art of talking to new heights, first on stage, and later, on the screen.

Well, not so single-handedly. Director Jonathan Demme is responsible for capturing this stage performance much like he did with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense– by making the most out of very little, and using the camera lens creatively without dipping into any cheap gimmicks. (By contrast, Stephen Sodebergh’s attempt at bringing a later Spalding Gray monologue to the screen with Gray’s Anatomy is a creative flop for this exact reason- too many formalist tricks, not enough meat. The result is distracting and annoying, often getting in the way of Gray’s idiosyncratic verbal patter.)

One man, one desk, and a stage- how interesting can that be? Obviously, plenty, or I wouldn’t be raving about this wonderful experiment that’s also a personal journey through Cambodia by way of Hollywood, as well as being a sharp critique on politics, government, and human nature. Spalding is exactly what he comes off as- a New England intellectual, too neurotic for his own good, but adept at converting his neuroses into entertaining yarns for us to devour. It would be self-indulgent if he weren’t so smart, and honest, and open, and raw, and funny.

With a perfect score by the incomparable Laurie Anderson, Swimming to Cambodia is both eerie and hilarious, dark and light. Gray’s ability to find the human angle in even the bleakest places always saves his material from drowning in despair, and softening it just enough for your consumption. Swallow at will.

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