Swimming to Cambodia

swiming-cambodia-revSwimming to Cambodia  (1987)    Cinecom Pictures/Comedy-Documentary    RT: 85 minutes    Rated R (language)    Director: Jonathan Demme    Screenplay: Spalding Gray    Music: Laurie Anderson    Cinematography: John Bailey    Release date: April 1987 (US)    Cast: Spalding Gray    Box Office: $1 million (US)

Rating: fullstar1fullstar1fullstar1star-empty1  

 In light of the recent passing of director Jonathan Demme, I decided to finally watch 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, a movie I haven’t thought about in years. As much as I like Demme’s work, especially his early stuff like Something Wild and Married to the Mob, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a movie where somebody sat and talked for 85 minutes. I didn’t see it when it played at the movies, came out on video or aired on cable TV. I forgot all about in until I saw mention of it in Entertainment Weekly (a proud subscriber since ’91) in their tribute to Demme who died of esophageal cancer this past April 26. It’s a sad loss for the industry and movie lovers alike. What better way to pay tribute to such a wonderful filmmaker by watching a movie of his that I never saw before. I managed to find a copy of Swimming to Cambodia and watched it this past Saturday night.

 In it, writer-actor Spalding Gray delivers a monologue about his experiences filming his role as assistant to the US Ambassador in the searing 1984 film The Killing Fields. That’s the one about the friendship between New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and interpreter Dith Pran in Cambodia on the eve of the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The film opens with Gray walking to The Performing Garage in New York City. He enters, walks past the small audience and takes a seat behind a table. In front of him is a glass of water, a microphone and a notebook that he brought with him. Then he starts talking. He talks about his experiences in Cambodia while working on the film. He talks about his meetings with director Roland Joffe who really wanted him for the part. He gives us a history of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge right to the time they seized power in Cambodia and murdered millions of people. He talks about the secret bombings in Cambodia in the early 70s and the evacuation of all Americans in 1975. He also talks about a prostitute that does interesting things with ping pong balls and bananas.

 swiming-to-cambodiaI only know Gray from the movies I’ve seen him in (Beaches and 1995’s Bad Company are the first that come to mind). I didn’t know he was such a spellbinding storyteller and magnetic speaker. Obviously, I love stories about filmmaking and could listen to them for hours on end. Gray has a special quality; when he speaks, we don’t just hear the words, we also picture the events he describes in our minds, kind of like the radio plays of old. He’s intelligent, well-spoken and funny. And he doesn’t just sit there and speak the words. He motions with his hands, flails his arms and yells. Demme keeps the camera on Gray throughout (save for the occasional shot of his hands or clips of his scenes from The Killing Fields). He doesn’t rely on fancy techniques or wild editing yet Swimming to Cambodia still has a sense of excitement to it. The score by Laurie Anderson is great.

 Swimming to Cambodia is adapted from a two-evening play that runs over four hours. It’s been edited down to less than 90 minutes. I can’t comment on the play but it works for the movie. Very few people want to watch filmed monologues; even fewer will watch one that runs four hours. Obviously, Swimming to Cambodia has a very limited appeal. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it but I’m glad I did. It’s pretty good. Some have complained that Gray uses the Cambodian genocide for his own purposes. To me, it didn’t come off that way. He describes a chapter in world history that schools don’t teach. It’s a jarring shift in tone from the comical stories he tells about smoking pot and searching for the “perfect moment” (it’s a thing in Cambodian culture). My mind wandered only a few times but Swimming to Cambodia held my attention for the most part. It’s not for everybody but if you’re an open-minded sort that appreciates films that are different, it’s for you. 

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