Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I have always had a bucket list of movies that for some reason or enough I have never got around too yet but am determined to watch before I leave this earth.  Swimming to Cambodia has been on that list for far too long, and when I finally saw it tonight with an over-excited Spalding Gray tumultuously exploding on the screen in front of me, I knew then that the wait had been so well worth it.

Just in case you are reading in this in some far flung place (evidently this Blog has been read in some 96 countries to date) and have never heard of actor/author Spalding Gray then you should he is a (even The?) master at the art of monologues whose stories come alive on the page, and he also performs them on stage and enthralls audience everywhere with his highly personalized slant on life as it happened to him.  In 1984 he had a small supporting role in the movie Roland Joffe's 'The Killing Fields' and the monologue he wrote about his experiences there in Southeast Asia both won him awards and became his major breakthrough.   Filmed in 1986 by Jonathan Demme as a raw performance of Gray on a tiny stage at a desk with the exercise book that he wrote the script in,  and just two maps and a pointer for props. It is totally riveting from his first rapid fire outpouring until the final closing anecdotes.

As an actor Gray had difficulty with other peoples words (there is one scene in 'The Killing Fields' they had to do 66 takes before he got it right) but his own flowed like liquid gold from his mouth with barely time to pause between the different incidents. Its easy to see that with his razor sharp analytical eye no single detail escapes him and he deconstructs each one to try to make some sense of everything.  We the audience act as his therapists (he already has a professional one) and he pours out his seemingly uncensored thoughts as nothing is deemed off limits even if it means revealing the inner most personal facts/feelings/confidences of the people in his life.  The fact that they continue to live with him after these performances is still somewhat of a mystery.

Another mystery (to me) is how this immensely articulate man so obviously so self absorbed, can yet somehow draw us all in and become so totally likable against all our natural instincts.  The fact that there is a prevailing sense of sadness throughout the whole piece .... even in the funny stories ..... is another hook.  He is unquestionably the most neurotic and hilarious storyteller that I have ever had the joy of listening too and watching.

Even back then, death was never far from his thoughts and a constance presence in his writing. His mother had committed suicide in 1967 after having a couple of nervous breakdowns, and Gray struggled with his own mental state his entire adult life.  Somewhat obsessed with his sexuality, he had major relationships with three very strong woman  ... each one overlapped the previous  one  ... and it looked like when he reluctantly became a father with Kathleen Russo his last amour, that he have found a stabling influence and a real shot at some normalcy and even happiness. But they were involved in a serious car accident whilst on vacation  in Ireland from which he never completely recovered physically.

In 2004 after several aborted attempts Gray finally took his own life allegedly by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The tortured genus was just 62 years old.

In 2010 director Steven Soderbergh with his editor Susan Littenberg used the wealth of archive of Spalding Gray's work and performances to make a very intimate and highly personal portrait of this rather remarkable man 'And Everything Is Going Fine'.  It was always Spalding Gray playing Spalding Gray : he made himself the art piece, the performance : warts and all.  As we watch him age on screen,  he makes no attempt to hide his severe bouts of depression that are now a major fixation. It somehow seems unnerving that as this tormented soul taps into this for his monologues that we should derive even the slightest sense at all of being anything else but disturbed by such public revelations.

I watched these movies (courtesy of Netflix) back to back because I very quickly became totally transfixed by the man and his words and in a matter of hours turned into a Spalding Gray junkie. As a passionate cinephile I am more than aware of the power of the silver screen, and in this case if it hadn't been for me finally starting to work through my  'bucket list'  I would have never ever got to experience this  rather magnificent sad man.  

Next up it will be his  books, and then I'll re-watch the films.  If you havent seen either of these movies, than I urge you too.  They are far too wonderful to be sitting on anyone's bucket lists.