Shout! Factory // 1987 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 14th, 2013
Reality with a wry twist.
Having been introduced to the late master storyteller Spalding Gray through the expertly-crafted Steven Soderbergh films And Everything is Going Fine... (a documentary tribute of sorts that features Gray telling the story of his life through theatrical performances and interviews) and Gray's Anatomy (in which Gray describes a troublesome eye condition in horrific, hilarious detail), I was eager to explore more of his work. Thankfully, the acclaimed Jonathan Demme film Swimming to Cambodia -- arguably the most well-known of Gray's shows -- has just received a new DVD release, giving myself and plenty of others a good excuse to check it out.
If you aren't familiar with Gray, here's how his stage performances work: he sits at a table with some notes, a glass of water and a microphone, and he proceeds to talk for 80-90 minutes. That's it. He's not a comedian, exactly (though he can be tremendously funny), nor is he a dramatist (though he can be quite dramatic) -- he's just Spalding Gray, and there's no one else quite like him. He speaks constantly of his own anxieties and insecurities, but is fearless in honestly revealing the depths of those anxieties and insecurities. Pardon the pretentiousness of this statement, but his candor can be as exhilarating as any blockbuster action sequence.
In theory, Swimming to Cambodia is an account of Gray's work on Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (in which Gray played a prominent supporting role). While there are indeed some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, the special is considerably broader and deeper. Gray uses his personal memories as a springboard to examine global politics during the Vietnam era, the Taiwanese sex industry, American liberalism and much more. His performance is neatly divided into a series of segments, as most of his stories tend to have a specific beginning and end, but they do add up to a greater whole.
Swimming to Cambodia is a bit different from watching a standard Gray stage performance, as Demme adds a few little artistic flourishes -- a lighting change here, a sound effect there, a few dramatic music cues during some of the darker passages -- but for the most part, Gray's doing all the work himself. While it's not quite as riveting on a cinematic level as the work Soderbergh did with Gray's Anatomy (truly a master class on how to make a one-man show visually compelling), all that really matters is whether the central subject is in good form, and he certainly is. It's classic Gray through and through: the unusual conversations with talkative strangers, the quiet philosophical moments, the thunderous bursts of drama, the self-deprecating wit -- all of it immensely compelling.
Swimming to Cambodia has received a decent 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The film definitely shows its age and is pretty grubby and soft on occasion, but it doesn't really matter all that much. The film is essentially an elaborate talking-head piece. Considering the film's age and scale, it's fine. The Dolby 1.0 Mono track gets the job done well enough, conveying Gray's words and the creepy synthetic score with clarity. The only supplement is an informative interview with Demme.
Whether you're unfamiliar with Spalding Gray or are eager to dig into more of his work, Swimming to Cambodia is well worth your time. The DVD release isn't anything special, but it gets the job done. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R