Jonathan Demme and Spalding Gray are both gone, but this film remains their testament to the power of words and images.
Spalding Gray was the rage of the New York theater scene in the early ‘80s. Sitting alone at a desk with nothing but a child’s composition notebook, a glass of water and a microphone, he delivered a monologue about his time making The Killing Fields for director Roland Joffe. While Gray’s role as the American ambassador’s aide accounted for less than three minutes of screen time, the epiphanies would provide enough material for Swimming to Cambodia. Part production diary, part memoir and part history lesson, Gray would eventually whittle his monologue down to the two hour performance that would make him famous. Eventually, and by his own account, reluctantly, Jonathan Demme caught a performance, found it remarkable and wanted to transform the theatrical experience into a film.
Stop Making Sense had demonstrated Demme’s genius in capturing live performance on film, and as with his Talking Heads project, the director was concurrently working on a fiction film and sought relief from that arduous process. Demme’s goal for both movies was the same: he wanted to provide the best seat in the house for the show you couldn’t get to or that you loved and wanted to see again. The challenge with Swimming to Cambodia was how to make a minimalist theater piece into an interesting movie.
Gray had performed the monologue hundreds of times, so Demme focused on crafting the film rather than directing the actor. He wanted to open the film up to give it a context beyond the stage and audience, but found little space to do so outside a few opening shots of Gray walking through SoHo on his way to the theater. As with Stop Making Sense, the camera rarely deviates from the point-of-view of an audience member. Gray is forever being watched. The shot is never reversed to see his view of the audience.
At the outset of the film Demme keeps Gray and his desk in long and medium shots. As the performance moves along the material becomes more personal and the director begins to frame his performer in more and more close-ups. Sweat drips and spit flies while Gray recounts a near death experience on an idyllic beach or the battle between his girlfriend and her upstairs neighbor. Demme plays with lighting and sound to enhance the emotion of Gray’s stories and includes Gray’s few moments of glory from Joffe’s Oscar nominated opus.
All the craftsmanship of filmmaking Demme employs has the effect of augmenting Gray, who was a very polite force of nature with a Bostonian accent. Words are Gray’s true medium, and there is a fleeting sense of how talent is squandered while listening to this master of phrasing weave his stories juxtaposed to his scenes in The Killing Fields where his character’s main motivation was exposition. With his flannel shirt and childish notebook, Gray exudes the warmth of that English professor that comes along at the very moment you needed a mentor, the one who taught you about poetry and how to roll a joint. There is something new and generationally defining about Gray’s work here. He’s a child of the ‘60s, interweaving his personal narrative with one of his generation’s greatest tragedies, the bombing of Laos and the Cambodian genocide. He leads the audience with grace and humor as he navigates the world through his quiet eccentricity.
Aside from Gray’s vocal range, this is essentially a quiet movie, an episodic monologue whose chapters are marked when Gray sips from a glass of water. In one section Gray describes with great intensity the genocide that gives The Killing Fields its title. When he reaches for his water, we see a shot from his perspective behind the desk. This is the only time in the film we experience Gray’s POV. Editor Carol Littleton knew we would need something to break us away from the tragedy we had heard recounted. With one subtle cut she reminds us of the artificiality of the film we’re experiencing and allows our minds to reset.
Swimming to Cambodia emerged from the SoHo art scene of the ‘80s. The great creative energy of Manhattan at the time gave such projects as Gray’s monologue the space and time to flourish. The film feels not so much an artifact of its time but a timeless work of art. Jonathan Demme was a wild man who always looked to challenge his abilities. He and Spalding Gray are gone now, but Swimming to Cambodia remains their testament to the power of words and images.