Criterion // 1996 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 7th, 2012
"Doubt is my bottom line. The only thing I don't doubt is my own doubt."
Criterion's Blu-ray release of Steven Soderbergh's Gray's Anatomy couldn't have arrived at a more appropriately cringe-inducing time in my life. Recently, I was informed by an opthamologist that I would probably need to have a minor eye operation done. Just the inspections the doctor did to determine this fact made me feel as if I were starring in a remake of A Clockwork Orange; I dreaded to think of what the operation (the description of which contained such alarming keywords as "scalpel," "scraping" and "incision") would be like. As such, in the days since I have tried -- with mixed success -- to find a natural solution that will prevent me from having to experience such an ordeal. I have a reasonably high tolerance for pain, but the eye is such a delicate and sensitive place -- I really don't want people digging around in that region. I suspect there are many of you who feel similarly.
Considering all of this, the opening ten minutes or so of Gray's Anatomy were particularly harrowing. It offers a handful of black-and-white interviews with unnamed ordinary Americans, each of whom has a mortifying tale of ocular horror. One man recounts the time he had to pull a one-inch piece of steel out of his eye. Another woman has a condition which causes her eyelids to tear tiny chunks out of her eyes when she sleeps. It goes on and on, and after a certain point I wondered whether this viewing experience would somehow manage to be even more stomach-churning than Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (the answer to that question is always, "no, of course not," but I was wondering nonetheless).
Then the great Spalding Gray arrives and launches into his story. Gray has a eye-related tale to tell as well, but his is a milder one. In fact, it's alarmingly similar to mine: he was informed that he needed to have an operation, and then he desperately proceeded to seek out natural solutions instead. It's a tale filled with humor and insight, a collection of somewhat neurotic episodes that add up to a larger statement about human nature. Gray's early attempts to self-treat his condition (a "macular pucker") involves diet and alternative medicine, but soon his desperation leads him to strange spiritual experiments (from an Indian sweat lodge ceremony to a "psychic surgeon" in the Philippines who sounds very much like the real-life equivalent of The Simpsons' Dr. Nick).
The film is based on Gray's stage monologue of the same name, though it's not an entirely faithful adaptation. Soderbergh cut portions of the monologue that he felt drew focus away from the central story of a man attempting to deal with his fear of eye surgery, which made the film a bit too short (roughly an hour of the original monologue remains). To flesh out the film in a way that absolutely doesn't feel like needless padding, Soderbergh filmed the aforementioned eye-themed testimonials for the film's opening reel and then proceeds to return to these people at random intervals to get their take on how Gray reacted to his situation. In an interview included on the disc, Soderbergh claims he was obsessed with the notion of using nothing more than words to create horrifying material which would make viewers weak in the knees. He most certainly achieved that particular goal.
The Gray sequences look immensely simple at a glance: it's simply the man sitting at a desk and speaking into a microphone. However, Soderbergh enhances the tale using a variety of compelling camera angles, lighting, evocative backdrops and musical cues (written by Cliff Martinez, who breaks from his usual ambient sound to create a score that makes Gray's performance seem like the most memorably bizarre attraction at a county fair) to create a genuinely cinematic experience. It's another film from Soderbergh in which the technique is as compelling as the content (in fact, there have been numerous cases in which the former has arguably been more interesting than the latter, but Gray's considerable storytelling skills ensure that isn't the case in this film).
Gray's Anatomy (Blu-ray) offers an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which does a nice job of highlighting the memorable set design. Don't be fooled by the opening shot -- a very blurry image of an old PSA being broadcast on a television -- the level of detail is impressive throughout. The interview sequences are offered in stark black-and-white, while the Gray sequences (which dominate the running time) are colorful and warm (though there are moments which rely on heavy shadows and moody lighting). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong as well, offering crystal-clear dialogue and allowing the insinuating score to blend superbly with Gray's voice. There are a few sound effects employed here and there, but for the most part sound design is minimal. The biggest supplement is a full-length presentation of Gray's monologue "A Personal History of the America Theatre" (97 minutes). It's a compelling show with a delightfully offbeat structure, but hampered somewhat by the poor video quality (audio quality is respectable, however, and that's what really matter with this sort of thing). You also get a 12-minute interview with Soderbergh, an 18-minute interview with Gray's longtime collaborator Renee Shafransky, a trailer and...wait for it...16 minutes of raw footage from Gray's eye surgery (presented here under the cutesy title "Swimming to the Macula"). I wasn't really up for watching the entirety of that last item, but your mileage may vary. Finally, there's a booklet featuring an essay by Amy Taubin.
Despite some intensely unpleasant moments, Gray's Anatomy is largely a warm, wise, funny film that spotlights Spalding Gray in peak form. Soderbergh's directorial efforts make the movie feel like much more than simply a filmed version of the stage show; it's practically a master class in how to make something as simple as one man talking a visually compelling experience. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Performance
* Additional Footage