In 1983 American actor Spalding Gray took a small but pivotal role in the now classic The Killing Fields. His experience before, during and after the making of the film effected him so greatly he decided to make a one man show out of his experiences. Causing a stir on the New York off-Broadway circuit he brought in director Jonathan Demme, a man who was no stranger to filming great live performances after his unforgettable concert film of Talking Heads Stop Making Sense.
So that’s what Swimming to Cambodia is. An hour and half monologue delivered by an actor you may not be too familiar with, talking about his time filming a small part in a film that you may not have got around to seeing. Doesn’t necessarily sound like the most riveting film experience you could ever have.
That is the films greatest trick, and indeed the show’s appeal when it was first performed. Gray is an erratic and authoritative speaker. Machine gunning his script and a tireless speed he seems to fit a lifetime of stories into the short runtime. Discussing everything from his OCD tendencies, to be a struggling actor, to on-set anecdotes and stories about the effects of drug taking on his relationships that might make you wince at their candour. Nothing is left unturned. At times the monologue feels like a confessional more than anything else. His almost bi-polar style of performance feels like you could be watching a man who is having a final rant about the world before taking his own life and the end of it all. You know that he probably won’t, despite the sad fact that Gray would go on to take his own life years later, but there is an air of tension throughout the stories that never once let’s you get comfy. Any moment you expect his to come out with a quick quip about how he witnessed someone being horrible murdered in front of him.
Staying sat throughout the whole endeavour Gray utilises his facial expression, manic hands and voice to get his message across. Therefore a lot of your enjoyment of Swimming to Cambodia will come down to whether or not you find Gray a bizarre but welcoming host and some motormouthed loon who you would rather avoid. Moments in the film do dip, it’s not perhaps a film that bares repeat viewings. Some of the anecdotes will stick in the memory others may wash away as quickly as he can tell you them.
For a film though that essentially takes place at a desk Jonathan Demme pulls off a near miraculous feet of keeping the camera always moving. Something is always happening on screen. Gray the writer should be applauded for his mix of facts about the Chimera Rouge genocides with stories about his own drunken arguments without it ever feeling too self-centered. Indulgent? My God yes. Worth your time? I think so.
Dir: Jonathan Demme
Scr: Spalding Gray
Starring: Spalding Gray
Prod: Lewis M. Allen
DOP: John Bailey
Music: Laurie Anderson
Runtime: 87 mins
Distributor: Simply Media