Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky took four years and 1,900 pages to write the original version of this review. Let's all give thanks that he has a good editor.
"How therapeutic it is to surround yourself with people stranger than yourself."—Spalding Gray
Maybe he should have just forgotten about the story and taken a vacation instead. But telling stories was what Spalding Gray was all about. Monster in a Box is one of those stories, a monologue delivered to a London audience, many of whom probably saw Gray's cult success, Swimming to Cambodia, five years before.
Director Nick Broomfield takes a page from Jonathan Demme's playbook for Swimming to Cambodia: minimalism as a way of focusing our attention on Gray's hypnotic tale. A bare stage, a glass of water, a notebook—and a very large box.
The monster in this box is 1,900 pages, a novel based on Gray's own life, the suicide of his mother, and his inability to feel relaxed anywhere. The novel is called Impossible Vacation, and it finally came out in 1993. It was 228 pages in its final form (or at least in my paperback copy). It is pretty good, although it lacks some of the energy of hearing Gray speak to you through the camera (or better, in a real theater).
Gray's story is clearly a performance. He pauses dramatically to sip his water; he waves his hands to punctuate key moments. Broomfield cuts strategically, moves the camera in and out on occasion. Gray is backlit to accentuate his whitening hair like some Renaissance saint from New England. He only comes out from behind the desk late in the performance to relate his wild visit to the Hermitage (where he was thrown out "for imitating royalty"). Experimental musician Laurie Anderson, who worked on Swimming to Cambodia, returns to provide the electronic score.
This is a monologue. You won't get much out of the stereo mix (except some separation in Laurie Anderson's score); the anamorphic picture is clean but nothing fancy. There are no extras, although some excerpts from Impossible Vacation would have been welcome here. I had to dig around to find my own copy buried at the back of a shelf (I haven't looked at it in at least a decade). And why would a monologue—so heavily dependant on words—lack subtitles? That is just careless on the part of Image.
The story ranges from Gray's distracting visit to bustling Los Angeles (including his first earthquake and a meeting with a predatory talent agent), his "fact-finding" mission to Nicaragua (where he rooms with a "pedantics major") to sniff out a story for a movie studio, his meeting with a group of UFO abductees, screening Swimming to Cambodia in Moscow (the vodka was great, but the simultaneous Russian translation during the film was a wash), to his disastrous Broadway turn as the Stage Manager in Our Town.
The stories jump around, begin and end in midstream, and often feel unfinished. Gray will start a fragment of experience, veer off into another story, come back to the first story, swing into a plot point from Impossible Vacation, then…you get the point. Don't worry about plot: this is a collection of anecdotes connected only insofar as they are rewritten by Gray into plot points in his expanding novel. In other words, this is a story about how we turn our lives into stories, whether we want to or not.
It is impossible to watch this film, its fusion of humor and existential terror, without drawing comparisons to Gray's 2004 suicide. Of all his filmed or recorded monologues, this is the story that most prefigures Gray's eventual emotional breakdown. While Gray's Anatomy and It's a Slippery Slope focus on health issues—and Gray's debilitating 2001 car accident usually gets the blame for precipitating his suicide—stories like his roommate's mental collapse in Nicaragua, the time he interviewed to work at a suicide hotline, the funeral scene in Our Town—all suggest the futility of closure. Again, the central theme here is, how do you finish a story about your life? What ending will you write?
It seems, in a strange, sad way, appropriate that Spalding Gray's life became so intertwined with his narrative self that his own widow credits his decision to kill himself to watching Tim Burton's Big Fish (a film about the power of storytelling to transcend death) the night before. Perhaps it was what Gray called (in Swimming to Cambodia) a "perfect moment," a moment where life and storytelling fused and could not come apart again.
Swimming to Cambodia may be Spalding Gray's most famous and arguably best filmed monologue, but Monster in a Box is the most complete statement of his life and work. The man may be gone, but his stories continue. And I suspect Spalding Gray would find that entirely appropriate.
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