Swimming to Cambodia

Dir: Jonathan Demme

85 Minutes

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Spalding Gray walks onstage, sits at the desk, takes a sip of water, and begins the monologue in a soft voice. He speaks as if he’s an old friend meeting you for a drink–you’ve found a place to sit where he doesn’t have to shout over the noise, and he starts to talk you in. He describes a “pleasure prison” where he stayed on the Gulf of Siam in Thailand, or what was actually a hotel, but due to the barbed wire fences, rabid dogs and formaldehyde-tainted beer, it makes for an unstable image of paradise. Luckily there’s a formaldehyde-free alternative, Kloster beer, and Gray says the smiling Thai waiter is running to bring more of it when he trips, drops the bottles and they shatter on the ground. Gray throws up his hands and delivers the waiter’s line with bright eyes and a big smile: “Sorry, sir, we’ve just run out of Kloster.”

The monologue, which Gray performs entirely from his seat at the desk, centers on his experience in a supporting role in Roland Joffé’s film The Killing Fields. The film takes place after America’s secret bombing of the Cambodia-Vietnam border. It’s 1975, and under Pol Pot’s leadership, the Khmer Rouge has taken over Cambodia, and is in the process of relentlessly killing what ended up being 1.7 million of their fellow Cambodians.

The first question asked by one who hasn’t heard of Spalding Gray is most likely, “Why would I want to watch a man sit at a desk and talk for 90 minutes about Cambodian genocide?”


Swimming to Cambodia isn’t nearly as exhausting as it sounds, and is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. It’s not a Michael Moore-type call to arms, nor is it a dry list of atrocities meant to inform us of events to which we are oblivious. This is a story told by a fellow human being, a raw nerve with a list of his own neuroses and fears, Christian Scientist-gone-“Freudian Existentialist” Spalding Gray. His art illuminates the fragility of human nature, asking not why we are fragile, but why that fragility causes us to act in the ways that we do, lashing out at each other, maintaining chasms of misunderstanding between us rather than bridging them.

He tells of his girlfriend Renee’s upstairs neighbor in Manhattan, for instance, who plays her “quadraphonic torture box” with the volume blaring every night. Gray himself has made civil requests that she turn down the music, Renee has used her own method of verbal abuse over the phone, and still it seems the only solution for the building’s suffering tenants is to take up a collection to have the woman killed.

It’s in these other stories where Gray’s wit and humor come into play, and it’s ironically in these more humorous anecdotes that we start to understand the gravity of his subject. He finishes the apartment story by saying, “How does a country like America–or rather how does America, because certainly there’s no country like it–begin to find the language to negotiate or talk with a country like Russia or Libya if I can’t even begin to get it with my people on the corner of Broadway and John St.?” Gray’s wonder at these grand questions concerning humanity, or the troubling lack thereof, is something with which we all can identify. As tiny individuals in the seas of the masses, we have no answer to the question of why the currents move one way or the other. Nor does Gray have the answer, attributing part of the Khmer Rouge’s motivation to an “invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America,” pointing out that evil knows no logic and has no borders.

Director Jonathan Demme’s influence is subtle, making Gray’s storytelling the true star of the film. He is not altogether absent, however, using music and sound effects to emphasize moments in the stories. He uses camera angles that volley when Gray recounts dialogues between himself and others, aiding our distinction between the two speakers. The varied points of view also pull us close at key moments, or draw back for reprieve as the lighting changes and Gray takes a sip of water. In that way Demme gives the audience a sip of water, allowing a brief mental digestion before Gray continues. Demme’s skills at making the filmed monologue an enjoyable experience are marked by their near-invisibility.

Gray’s presence onscreen brings him down from omniscient storyteller to human being–one just as unable to comprehend the scope of our world as any other. “Every time I try to think of the United States of America I get the cold sweats,” he says, “I can’t even look at a weather map anymore; it’s too big. That’s part of why I moved to Manhattan. I wanted to move to an island off the coast of America.” Seeing him allows the experiences to take shape–the shape of a performer, the shape of a friend telling us a story, the shape of a human off the coast of humanity.

Gray admits that after his first meeting with Joffé concerning The Killing Fields, he had no mental picture of Cambodia. Certainly we had the same trouble when tensions flared in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that many Americans couldn’t locate either country on a map became an uneasy joke as we faced the chilling realization of just how big the world is, and how little we still know about it. Gray could simply point out his own moment of ignorance for us to laugh about and then move on, but instead he then pulls down a hanging map of Cambodia, using a pointer to pick it out from between Thailand and Vietnam.

The map is not just a colorful set piece. It’s there to give us a grasp on Cambodia as a place, just as the outline of the United States is so clearly burned into American minds. It’s there to help us follow Gray on his travels while shooting The Killing Fields. It’s there to represent one of the myriad shapes evil has taken over the course of human history. It’s there to remind us that while at times the world is a gigantic, abstract, and frightening place to be, we have maps to help us understand the places our fellow men inhabit, and that we ourselves do not. It gives context to Cambodia among its surrounding countries, just as Gray’s patchwork of stories gives context to his discussion of evil and the dissociation of humanity.

Were he still with us today, Spalding Gray himself would tell you he’s no cartographer, but this film is a valuable testament to the fact that while some are out mapping the physical landscape we all share as human beings, Gray is a mapmaker for the mental and emotional landscape we all occupy together, but in which we each feel so ironically alone. In this way Gray is a mapmaker of an unusual and important breed–one who uses lines to make connections rather than borders.

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