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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Swimming to Cambodia

There are a lot of t-shirts for sale on Facebook that feature Charlie Brown, his head turned downward in sorrow, with the speech balloon reading, "I still miss" and some artist, ranging from David Bowie to Andy Williams. Well, I still miss Spalding Gray, and I realized this even more when I watched Swimming to Cambodia again.

I decided to take a look at it again because of the director, Jonathan Demme's passing, but like Stop Making Sense, Demme is not the story, it is the artist he shoots. In this case, it is Gray, performing a monologue at a little theater somewhere in Soho. He walks in in his uniform of flannel plaid shirt, sits at a desk with a glass of water and a spiral notebook (I believe it had Ronald McDonald on the cover) and starts.

Demme, in a fascinating supplemental interview, calls Swimming to Cambodia a perfect film, and he isn't bragging, as he says he just has a sliver of that; it's mostly Gray. I couldn't agree more. The brilliance on display here is staggering--it's hard to imagine anything more trenchant, funny, or revealing. Though this is a film of a man sitting at a desk, it feels like it as more action than any Transformers movie.

The story revolves around Gray's small part in the film The Killing Fields. He spends eight weeks in Thailand and tries to find his "perfect moment." Gray is a kind of like your weird uncle who has crazy adventures you might like to have but would probably chicken out of. His perfect moment turns out to be swimming so far out into the Indian Ocean that he fears he will drown. He smokes Thai stick on the beach and it's like "a demented Wallace Stevens poem with food poisoning." In great detail he describes the Bangkok sex trade, where one can go to a massage parlor and pick a girl from a lineup of them watching TV. He goes to a live sex show where a girl shoots a banana out of her vagina.

I've seen Gray live four times, but this was my introduction to him, way back in 1987. What I wonder at is his structure of the monologues--they are not in chronological order, but instead crafted like exquisite narratives. He takes a few tangents, such as when he talks with a Navy guy who had his finger on a button at a nuclear silo. They chat in the Amtrak bar car, which Gray calls "a rolling confessional." Here Demme steps in a bit, as the conversation is cut so that Gray speaks to his right, and the Navy guy to his left, and the cuts give the illusion that two men are speaking to each other.

Gray also gives us the background of the film, about how Cambodia was overtaken by a madman named Pol Pot, who led the greatest autogenocide (killing his own people) in human history. The U.S. government, of course, was mostly at fault, as they bombed the shit out of the country, deposed the prince, and installed a guy named Lon Nol. Gray points out, "Nobody knew anything about Lon Nol except that Lon Nol is Lon Nol spelled backwards."

He is approached to be in the film by director Roland Joffe, whom Gray describes as "Body of Zorro, heart of Jesus, eyes of Rasputin." He is excited to be in the film, and brings along his girlfriend Rene (Schafransky, who produced the film) but is tempted by the "devil in his ear," a second unit director named Ivan, who gives him the Thai stick and lures him out into the water. It is Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright, who steers him back to reality. "The sea is a great lady--you may play in her, but not with her."

There is a lot of laughter in this film, such as how Gray deals with a noisy neighbor (he acts out how his WASP kind dealt with things like this in 1964) and how he had trouble memorizing a bit of dialogue in the film that took 66 takes and had to be redubbed anyway.

If Demme had only made Stop Making Sense and this film he could have been called great, and while Gray had more monologues (Monster in a Box was also made into a film) I think this was his pinnacle. It is political, harrowing, funny, and moving. He was a one of a kind talent, and Demme captured him perfectly.

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