I first saw Swimming to Cambodia — the film version of Spalding Gray's groundbreaking monologue — on VHS my senior year of high school, by way of my first serious girlfriend Courtney. A fellow theater nerd, Courtney was also a dedicated goth girl and introduced me to many new and exotic things, like Bauhaus records and the BBC punk comedy The Young Ones.
As cool girlfriends often do, Courtney improved my taste and expanded my horizons. Here was an entirely riveting performance that featured one man, sitting behind a desk, talking about war and art and sex and drugs. About Nixon and Kent State, secret bombings and Thai brothels. About "an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random at places. Like Iran. Beirut. Germany. Cambodia. America."
It rather blew my mind. I knew nothing about experimental theater or performance film — forget about Southeast Asia. But I knew this was something different from our after-school rehearsals of Brigadoon, and that it represented a different trajectory if I wanted to follow along.
Incredibly, Swimming to Cambodia has never had an official U.S. DVD release until now. New this week from the pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory, Swimming to Cambodia features the full-length 1987 film along with a new interview with director Jonathan Demme.
Swimming to Cambodia is structured around Gray's experience working on the Academy Award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Gray spent two months filming in Thailand and he tells of his adventures, during his copious downtime, with Bangkok nightlife and the local high-grade marijuana. These are the funny bits. But Gray also goes into great depth about what he learned there concerning the recent history of Southeast Asia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Cambodian Genocide. For props, he has a desk, a notebook, a microphone, two pull-down maps and a glass of water. Behind him is a backlit projection screen. He simply talks, and you can't take your eyes off him.
Watching it again after 20-some years, I marveled at the power and subtlety of Gray's work. At the time the film was made, Gray had performed his theater piece "hundreds, if not thousands of times," Demme says. Yet his performance is utterly fresh and spontaneous, as if he's spinning those memories off the top of his head.
Gray is a master storyteller, of course, and his language has the delirious, rapid-fire cadence of extemporaneous poetry. What I noticed this time around was the degree to which director Demme enhances Gray's stage presentation with specific film techniques. The camera movements and cuts are inconspicuous, until they're not. In one intense sequence, Gray re-enacts a conversation with a coked-out Navy man named Jack Daniels, who describes monitoring missile systems between sex parties and drug binges. Demme toggles between cameras as Gray whips his head back and forth, spitting crazed dialogue and evoking the madness of war.
In the bonus interview material, Demme bristles at the description of the film as a documentary about a stage presentation. It's a performance film, he says, just as much as his earlier collaboration with the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense. Demme provides additional interesting details about the 1980s NYC art scene, including his work with Laurie Anderson, who provides the film's minimalist score.
Spalding Gray went on to produce several more one-man shows that were made into performance films, including Monster in a Box and Gray's Anatomy. He died in 2004, after going missing for a couple months, in a presumed suicide. His body was eventually pulled from the East River in New York City. Gray had long suffered from depression, worsened by a 2001 car accident and brain injury.
Swimming to Cambodia remains Gray's most well-known work. For those who have seen it before, I can report that revisiting the film is a genuine pleasure. For those who haven't seen it, you'll get to see it for the first time, which is an enviable circumstance to be in.
Also New This Week:
Directed by Nancy Buirski, founder of Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the excellent archival doc The Loving Story profiles Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple at the center of the 1967 Supreme Court ruling — Loving v. Virginia — that overturned anti-miscegenation laws in America. The Loving Story recently won a Peabody award after its broadcast premiere on HBO last year.
Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton and J.K. Simmons star in the sci-fi horror hybrid Dark Skies.
A grand and sweeping historical epic set in 19th century China, Empire of Silver follows the fortunes of a family dynasty in the final years of the the country's Imperial Age.
For you BBC fans, Acorn Media has reissued the addictive detective series George Gently on DVD and Blu-ray.
Plus: Lore, Priest of Evil, Generation Um...and TV-on-DVD season collections from Covert Affairs, Longmire, Red Widow and Suits.