When Spalding Gray killed himself by walking into the East River, two-and-a-half years after a horrifying car accident left him vulnerable to the demons that had always been scratching at his door, I felt this irrational sense of possessiveness: this feeling that I had something to do with it and, more perversely, that I could have saved him somehow if I’d only tried. Understand that I’ve never had any personal contact whatsoever with Mr. Gray (even his name is liminal) – but that there was about his monologues and performance art pieces the kind of immediacy that someone like Miranda July can only ever hope to ghost in her crippled rambles. Gray wasn’t about the set-up – he was the middle – and we joined him there and went on through to the other side somehow. When he had his accident in June 2001, I remember thinking that if it was bad (it was: broken hip diagnosed, broken skull and prefrontal damage not diagnosed for some time), he’d be a medical pin cushion for months into years and that if his Gray’s Anatomy was any indication, the pleasures of the new flesh were horrors for the bi-polar monologuist. I didn’t know how he’d survive. The last movie he saw with his family was Big Fish: the story of the death of a dad who liked to tell stories - his wife says that she thinks it gave him permission to die.
His last words to his wife were that he was on his way to “buy stationary.”
My first exposure to Gray (and to Jonathan Demme) was Swimming to Cambodia, a work that finds Gray seated behind a desk with a glass of water before him, talking and talking and talking about his experiences in Cambodia while filming Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields. His brief cameo as an ambassador evacuating the embassy is presented here in brief, the only time that we cut away from Gray and his story of doing Thai stick, swimming in the ocean, and wondering what it is that it’s all about. There are signs of doom everywhere in Swimming to Cambodia, the whole thing has an apocalyptic air and when Gray talks about ebbs and flows, Demme rocks his camera back and forth. It’s lulling in the way a cuddle from a madman would be: insidious, menace in the soothing tones of Gray’s carefully-practiced meter and verse. “I’m basically a fearful person. A phobic person” Gray tells us during the course of his spoken-word memoir, and then he tells of leaving his body behind in the shark-infested waters off the coast of where they’re filming, hearing Joffe in his peculiar baritone calling out to him as he drifts farther into the black, and Gray, the phobic person, feels “rocked to terrific sleep.” I watched Swimming to Cambodia often after the death of my own father, looking in my grief for a little of that “perfect moment” I think. Awash with so much of that particular varietal of angry grape, I think for a time that I really understood the blue mood Gray represented.
But the picture itself: Swimming to Cambodia is a masterpiece of the directing and editing arts. It’s as complicated a film as any in Demme’s long and diverse career of showier pictures (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate and so on), demonstrating of all things that Demme at his best has a deep understanding of his subject matter and uses film as a kind of scalpel to peel back the layers of sign and signifier. Gray was my first exposure to a performer who was his own meta-persona – inseparable from the characters that he played not out of an inability to play something other, but out of too intimate a time spent in his headspace. Demme is the victim, too, of Gray’s invasive neurosis and Swimming to Cambodia is a diary of the passing of a verbal disease. We experience suture with a man in the process of eloquent self-analysis and the danger of that reverse-transference does something to the fabric of the cinema. The screen becomes elastic and we’re formulated to our chairs.
William S. Burroughs called language a virus and Gray provides that naked lunch to midnight word junkies.
The first time I saw the poster for David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, I thought of Spalding Gray. Here: Magritte, there Barton Fink, and everywhere Swimming to Cambodia. While watching Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, I was reminded of that first of his encounters with mortal thoughts way back in 1987. At PS 122 in the last days of his life, Gray returned to the stage in something incomplete he called “Life Interrupted” – a report of one of his final performances there shows a man who made his living with his liquid wit, befuddled and tormented while an audience of admirers turned impatient, then hostile, before going home. An artist admired for blurring the lines between a public and a personal persona, Gray for me was the artist who blurred the line between subject and audience – he was Herzog before I discovered Herzog – and there’s a line vibrant and true to be drawn between Swimming to Cambodia and Grizzly Man.
So here’s the eulogy, two years late, right on schedule.