March 07, 2006

Swimming to Cambodia

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.

28 comments:

food_critic said...

Walter,

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Spaulding Gray. Had never heard of Swimming to Cambodia or the devastating accident that befell him in real life.

I saw a screening of the Spike Lee produced mockumentary CSA: Confederate States of America last night. Unbelievably bad.

Jefferson said...

Spalding Gray always gave me wonderful joy in knowning that there are people in the world so finely attuned to life. Of course, the flip side to that attunement is often depression, because who can live in such a rough-edged world with all their nerves exposed? Good writing, Walter.

James Allen said...

Nice piece, Walt. While we're on the subject of Gray, I'd like to put in a few words for Monster in a Box, while not up to the level of Swimming, it is still a fascinating look into the creative process. While not for everyone, there is something to be said for the soul bearing of a guy that looks as unassuming as Gray.

I will always remember the rather odd sketch from SNL around 15-years ago: a commercial for the "Monsters of Monologue" pitting Gray (Michael McKean) against Eric Bogosian (Adam Sandler), belting out their thoughts in a boxing ring, complete with ring announcer. Talk about completely going over the head of a somewhat bemused audience. Oh well, being a Bogosian fan, I got a laugh out of it at least.

Seattle Jeff said...

Forgive my ignorance here, but...

What's with the Penelope Cruz hate?

I find it extremely amusing, but I just need to know where it's coming from, she's taking a lot of hits in the pic captions.

It could be that I don't get it because I haven't seen her in a movie.

Bill C said...

I think it's sorta one of those things where we don't even remember anymore; a running gag woven deeply into the lore.

Was disappointed when "Family Guy" started picking on her (Cleveland's mistaking her for Seabiscuit, for instance), but maybe it's an hommage.

Dave Gibson said...

I've often remarked, that if there is a hell, the only movies available are those featuring Tim Allen, Kate Hudson and Penelope Cruz. Dunno exactly why Cruz has the fingernails on blackboard effect, for me...I think it began with "Blow" one of the few Johnny Depp movies that really, really stunk---and, Cruz was monumentally terrible in it, but there's lots of terrrible actors out there, it certainly is not entirely due to talent (or lack thereof). I've always liked Keanu Reeves, who I'd readiy testify--is a terrible actor and I still like Woody Allen despite his indefensible personal life. Must be an unconscious thing, has Penelope Cruz even been in a good film? (keeping in mind that I believe that "Open Your Eyes" was nearly as bad as "Vanilla Sky")

Seattle Jeff said...

Bill,

Running gags rule!

James Allen said...

Penelope Cruz seems to be one of those actors who hasn't sufficiently translated from her native Spanish language Cinema to English. She just doesn't seem comfortable in the films I've seen her in. And, I'm sorry to be so cruelly blunt, her bad english speech doesn't help matters.

Now, other than Belle Epoque I am completely unfamiliar with her non-English speaking films. They might be all great for all I know (and I liked Belle Epoque, for what that's worth.) Did anyone see the original version of Vanilla Sky (Abre los ojos) which also featured Cruz? Is it better than the remake? (Something I can find easy to imagine.)

Bill C said...

Abre los ojos is slightly preferable to Vanilla Sky, but I agree with Dave above that neither version is the bee's knees. That and the dreadful Golden Balls are the only Spanish-language P. Cruz movies I've seen outside her Almodovar flicks, and I can honestly say she's no less like nails on a chalkboard when acting in her native tongue. That being said, I doubt there is a more masochistic viewing experience than her English-language debut, Woman on Top, which pairs her with her Yiddish equivalent, the insufferable Mark Feueurstein.

Bill G said...

I also don't understand the level of vitriol aimed at Cruz. Since the Vanilla Sky review, I have seen jabs, mostly at her appearance. Honestly, she's not that bad looking. Her bad acting - well I can understand that.

Walter_Chaw said...

With Cruz, I think, it started way back in the hazy mists of this site with someone noticing that she looked exactly like Ginger the Chicken from Chicken Run. Not a bad thing. For domesticated fowl. But, generally, I think it's like that viral Chuck Norris thing going around: or six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Surrealism for the not-terribly-witty: what can I say, it makes me laugh.

Also wanted to say that I saw V for Vendetta today and thought it rocked. First film since The Professional where I really liked Natalie Portman (on the fence with Beautiful Girls) - and Hugo Weaving remains my fave little-known actor. (Anyone here seen Frauds?)

Also saw Paul McGuigan's Lucky Number Slevin which I liked a lot in spite of myself. I guess it's almost safe to call me a McGuigan apologist now.

corym said...

I may be outing myself as a total dork, but: did anyone watch the Battlestar Galactica season finale tonight? Terrible timeslot. Great show.

Thoughts?

Bill C said...

Frauds and, for that matter, Proof. (The real one, not the Gwyneth Paltrow horseshit.)

I think I've always been a little more forgiving of Portman; really love her few scenes in Heat, and I actually kind of dug her Closer performance, though Julia Roberts is the unsung hero of that one. Anywhere But Here is the only decent thing Wayne Wang's made in years, and she was fine in it. (Fine in both the academic and ebonic senses of the word.) Garden State, though: p-u.

Raphael said...

I actually love Garden state and Portman´s Sam´s actually the kind of girl i´d like to be my girlfriend.I dont really understand why like the movie so much seeing as it´s pretty much devoid of any subtext and wears its quirkiness like a badge of honor.Maybe i see myself in the lithium addicted numbly depressed barely functional andrew largeman since i´ve been battling depression myself for half a decade.Maybe it´s just cause i´m 23 years old and i dont know yet what to do with my supposedly above average intelligence and crave for someone to help me find the way.Maybe i like Garden state because it´s my perfect wish fullfillment story even if it´s somewhat schematic.I´ll probably grow out of it like i´m growing out other films that meant something to me when i was a teen and now seem to hold no more magic for me.I can understand why you dont like Garden State but i prefer to continue liking it because it feels good and warm to do so.I think it´s the ultimate bourgeois escapism for this otherwise clueless and bored twenty something college student.

Natalie Portman´s bit was probably the true heart wrenching moment in the otherwise passable Cold Mountain.
As for Leon,it´s the most touching, whimsical and lyrical action filme of the 1990s.It seems to be a case of lightning in a bottle since Besson never did anything worthwhile ever again and is now reduced to mentoring French blockbusters wannabes that exhibit all of the worst features of american action cinema and none of its (ocasional) qualities.

Walter_Chaw said...

Didn't Besson do The Messenger post-Leon? And The Fifth Element, too? The latter good, I'd say, in a wacky way - but The Messenger is genuinely great.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I dig most of "Garden State" although I must say that Largeman stays interesting only when he is on medication. It's when he starts talking that I hated the movie. Then he sounds like he might be someone capable of making love to a cat. The scene with his father and the "ellipse" talk with Portman just ruined the show for me.

I do concur with Raphael that sometimes intellectuals seem too harsh on feel-good stuff. I see the point that such stuff is pretty much useless because its so non-challenging (which is what makes it feel-good), but at the same time I think it is an easy flog-pony and critics seem to go over-board just to maintain or propogate their rep. There is shit that annoys me too but I think I maintain the balance for the most part. Hell, better watch "Garden State" than "Crash", just as pointless but atleast it's entertaining.

Dave Gibson said...

Walter, you mentioned "Beautiful Girls" which has a lot of odd resonance for me (similar to what Raphael talks about) despite that it is a deeply flawed, and occassionally a nakedly bad film. Having seen it the first time over 10 years ago, I guess it captured a lot of the idealized, navel gazing self image that I carried around for years after graduating from university--the idea of "boys learning to be men" was not so much of a self-aggrandizing cliche yet. Watching it again recently was like reading some of my short stories from university--all tortured machismo and bargain-rate Mamet (everyone in BG speaks in threshold speeches) Nonetheless, I still felt Demme really captured the snowy, working class environment and the soundtrack still rocks my world--best not to dwell on the godawful performances from Rosie O'Donnell and Lauren Holly tho---

Alex Jackson said...

I didn't think that Beautiful Girls was cute at all. I wanted to scrape off these horrible people as soon as I got out. I just have little sympathy for the breed of man that populates that film. Not as much a problem with the filmmaking, the acting, or even the script per se I just literally have more compassion for (and interest in) child molesters than I do for these people.

I don't know what to make of Natalie Portman. While I liked Garden State, The Professional, Closer, and even the Star Wars prequels I don't think that she had very good parts in any of them and so it comes back to that perrenial question, can she do well with good material?

Carl Walker said...

Walter, I'm really shocked (and pleasantly surprised) that V for Vendetta is actually good. Seems to be a lot of buzz on it, which is often not a good sign. Moreover, it's not exactly that I'm a big Alan Moore fan, but I have reasonably enjoyed most of his graphic novel collections that I've checked out from various public libraries, including V, and I've started to feel bad for him at the atrocious luck he's had with adaptations of his properties (although I think you liked From Hell right?). It may be that he just hates it when they "change" things, but then there was LXG after all.

I liked Garden State at the time, but I also realized near the end that the whole movie takes place in Braff's head. Overall I'm glad he's remained on Scrubs. I just watched the first two seasons on Netflix within weeks, and that's a work of genius if there is any on TV comedy (expecting a flame for that). Like most comedic actors, he shouldn't be allowed to craft his own unmediated persona.

Oh and I imagine you've all seen this one already, but since we're talking about Portman: Natalie Raps on SNL. Feel like I shouldn't enjoy it, but increasingly I do.

Dave Gibson said...

Child molestors...fictional,self-centered working class dudes...ahh, a day without AJ-style hyperbole is like a day without sunshine...

Do agree about Portman though, I still think "Leon" is probably still her best part--and the almost-decade as Queen Amidala didn't exactly offer the challenge that say, a grade-ten one-act play would. Admit I've never been a fan of "Closer" (speaking of awful people)--never felt it was anything other than a filmed play.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

The ending happens in his head.

Nice theory about the climax. But like After Hours, I still hated it.

Alex Jackson said...

Child molestors...fictional,self-centered working class dudes...ahh, a day without AJ-style hyperbole is like a day without sunshine...

Blurrr... I was working on the assumption that both groups were equally fictional.

But yeah, I hate hate hated these people. Hated them. Spending time in their company is sheer torture. At least child molesters have real problems.

raphael said...

I didnt care much for The fifth element.It´s not awful but it´s nothing more for me than a fun ride.Well shot,beautiful to look at but devoid of any of the pathos of Leon and Nikita.
As for The messenger,i really didnt like it the only time i saw it about six years ago.I was born in Orléans and lived there till i was eleven and the story of Joan of Arc is a childhood favorite so i was rather peeved by the wild inacuracy of the all deal.Fortunately, i stopped expecting any sort of historical authenticity from movies.Still i dont know if all the "mystical hysteria" that permeates the movie will seat well with me when i will rewatch it.but hey maybe it´s the the apropriate way to tell the story of a 17 year old peasant girl who single handedly signaled the beggining of the end of a century old military conflict.Maybe i´ll make it a double feature and finally get around to watching Bresson´s take on the maid´s trial.Anyone who´ve seen it care to tell me what to expect?

Jefferson said...

Expect Milla Jovovich to twitch like she's wired to a car battery. Expect Dustin Hoffman to play Satan and/or God the way he would play Shylock. Expect to see a helmeted French soldier decapitated by a siege engine in the single funniest frame-by-frame DVD moment of the 1990s.

I know that probably doesn't help, Raph, but it's really all I remember about the movie.

Bill C said...

I thought The Messenger was pretty appalling when I saw it theatrically but I suspect I would like it a lot more now. I just remember some of the dialogue being excruciatingly anachronistic: "Put yourself in my shoes, Joan!" Dustin Hoffman's monologue about the human tendency to jump to the most ridiculous conclusion (ghosts, gremlins, divine intervention) before the most rational/logical is inspired, though; it's the first time I ever heard an audience blush.

Jefferson said...

corym said...
I may be outing myself as a total dork, but: did anyone watch the Battlestar Galactica season finale tonight? Terrible timeslot. Great show.


Spoiler-free ...

It was a fine ending, and I loved the utter cinematic trickery of the post-inaugural catastrophe. (Suffice to say that the fourth wall that's been omnipresent in every single out-in-space camera shot, since the begining of this series, is broken in a very dramatic way.)

I was led by previews to believe that the hybrid baby would be a much greater MacGuffin in this episode. I was surprised but not disappointed that things didn't go that way; reserves some tension for the next season.

And I don't know if timeslot programming really matters so much anymore. Sure, maybe nobody wants to stay home/wait up late on a Friday night, but genre fans who find something they love can follow along with DVDR, TiVo, and post-season DVD sets. A basic cable show doesn't really care about ratings the way the networks have to.

raphael said...

I was asking about Bresson´s "Le procès de Jeanne d'Arc" but thanks anyway, i had forgotten the detail of the decapitated french soldier.I do remember Joan´s sister being murdered and then raped as one of the nastiest bits of violence i've had the displeasure to watch in a movie,an epilepsy inducing photography and John Malkovich´s over the top (oxymoron!) king Charles acting like a retarded middle aged brat

Jefferson said...

My mistake. I confused Besson with Bresson. Probably the last time that will ever happen.