Steven Soderbergh is one of cinema’s true geniuses, a fact perhaps nowhere more readily apparent than in Gray’s Anatomy, his 1996 adaptation of a Spalding Gray monologue. The difficulty of translating a theatre piece to the screen is well documented by such films as David Mamet’s Oleanna and Richard Linklater’s Tape, but Soderbergh took on an exceptional challenge with Gray’s Anatomy. Really, what could be less cinematic than one man, sitting at a table with a microphone and a glass of water, talking for 80 minutes? Even as a live event, it doesn’t sound that thrilling— Gray’s frenetic cadences can be exhausting—but Soderbergh makes it work as a film through sheer ingenuity, creating a showcase for the restless experimental tendencies that characterize his early work, and in this case, upstage the tedious Gray.

Here, he recounts experiences in pursuit of alternative treatments for an eye ailment, a macular pucker, diagnosed by a medical doctor who recommends surgery. Gray tries out a Native American sweat lodge, psychic surgery, an all-raw vegetable diet and a host of other questionable therapies to avoid having the surgery done. Oscillating, in his characteristic style, from low-key anecdotalism to frenzied, frightening portrayals of drug experiences and religious pseudo-epiphanies, Gray seems to be drawing on a life lived for the sake of storytelling.

Soderbergh takes a much different approach than previous directors adapting Gray’s work. In Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme (who also made the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense) merely documents one of Gray’s shows, preserving the immediacy and imperfection of an individual live performance while also recording the piece itself, as written. The film works well for what it is, but it’s not an adaptation; featuring a live audience and several mistakes, it’s essentially the next-best thing to actually being present at a Spalding Gray performance.

Gray’s Anatomy is something else entirely. Soderbergh’s approach to the material is more active, and indisputably more cinematic. Instead of having Gray deliver his monologue uninterrupted, to an audience, with a multi-camera set-up, Soderbergh removes any diegetic pre-text and, breaking the piece up into shorter segments, designs a series of textually-specific environments using only basic sets and evocative lighting. He throws in about every visual technique he can think of, but the film still has a minimalist aesthetic, cobbling together just a few very simple visual elements and suggesting more than is actually shown. By placing a few candles up-close and out of focus or shooting an entire segment in the reflection of a picture frame, by cranking a fog machine up to 11 or putting up simple backdrops and rear projections, Soderbergh uses the fundamentals of visual composition to imply off-screen space and create what feel like entire worlds with the barest of resources.

All of which takes Gray’s material to ecstatic heights. It would be hard to imagine anyone being able to transform his stripped-down, hyper-verbal aesthetic into a work of pure cinema, but that’s exactly what Soderbergh does. The fact that his work as a director outshines the non-visual content only speaks to the thinness and vapidity of the latter, not a lack of generosity on Soderbergh’s part. Sure, he doesn’t self-efface as Demme does, but he does succeed in making the monologue into a film, and clearly worked with Gray to do so. The two had worked together previously on King of the Hill, and Soderbergh went on to make a documentary about Gray’s life in 2010, six years after his tragic death. Clearly, the intent was to enhance his work, to extend it into a new medium, not simply to show off Soderbergh’s visual gifts and resourcefulness. For anybody who finds Spalding Gray interesting, it’s a gift.

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