Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Seven

#47 — Swimming to Cambodia (Jonathan Demme, 1987)
The very nature of Swimming to Cambodia is fantastically, deliriously uncinematic. There’s no sweep or scope to the movie, nothing particularly dynamic to train the camera on. The action gets no more robust than tugging a roll-up map open and tapping a pointer against certain countries. And yet it is riveting, engaging, even enthralling. It is a beautifully understated testament to the value of sharp, intelligent storytelling, not in the sense of building a cinematic narrative, but the far simpler task of sitting before someone and sharing ideas, theories, philosophies, reminiscences and wrapping it in a wondrous droll humor. Though he acted and wrote other kinds of works, Spalding Gray’s great contributions to the arts came through his monologues. He came out before an audience and sat at a little table, his spiral notebook before him and a glass of water near at hand, and simply talked. Of course, it wasn’t as plain as that. He performed, subtly investing the words with zest and their own shifting emotional timbre. It wasn’t quite acting–Gray was too committed to pure self-revelation to let himself disappear into a work as if it were just a role he was playing–but it was alive with personality. His monologues had a conspiratorial warmth, like he was embracing the audience with his words, draping an arm around a metaphorical shoulder and murmuring his weary insights.

Other films and video recordings of Gray’s monologues followed this one, but it’s no slight to say that the work of the filmmakers that followed all exists in the long shadow cast by Jonathan Demme. He was the perfect director to help bring Gray’s stage performance to the screen. Like Gray, Demme had a discernible sensibility that was empathetic, humanistic, preternaturally unflappable, keenly observant and quietly amused. Demme also understood the dynamics of a performance, something he’d demonstrated emphatically with the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. He doesn’t default to a point-and-shoot mode as filmmaker, but engages in incredibly thoughtful methods of shaping his film to capture and reflect the work he was documenting. He utilizes fairly basic techniques to develop some visual variety to the piece, a little extra stagecraft with the lighting and subtle editing maneuvers that are downright inspired. Most importantly, he doesn’t try to make Gray’s monologue into something it isn’t. The only time Demme breaks away from Gray at the table is to show illustrative clips from The Killing Fields, the film about the Khmer Rouge taking over Cambodia in which Gray appeared as an actor, an experience which constitutes a significant portion of the monologue. Demme doesn’t want to do anything to distract from Gray’s performance; that’s what he’s trying to celebrate with the film, after all.

And that performance remains splendid. The piece Gray wrote is a bright explication of the absurdity of the entertainment business and all the unpredictable ways that life punishes and rewards those who try to embrace it. Gray wryly explains how his trepidation and adventurousness coexist in his boldly uncertain movements through the world. As funny as it all is, the film has admittedly taken on a unintended somber tone, a tinge of regret, given the turns that awaited Gray in the years after this, specifically the personal and medical hardships that led to a presumed suicide in 2004. It makes the work sadder, but also more special, in a way. It’s a gift to have Gray’s voice and mind preserved in such a perfectly built film, a film that honors him in the most suitable way possible. It gives his words center stage.