All those human tones: “Swimming to Cambodia:” (1987)

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By Scott Ross

More than thirty years after its release, I still don’t know whether Swimming to Cambodia is, strictly speaking, a movie or an exceptionally imaginative record of a unique theatrical experience. Whatever else it is or isn’t, it’s among the most exhilarating performance pieces of its time. It made such an impression on me that throughout the late ’80s whenever his name came up in conversation I used to tell friends I wanted to be Spalding Gray when I grew up.

Swimming to Cambodia - Spalding Gray

Unlike the well-known monodramas of the past (Mark Twain Tonight!, Brief Lives, Will Rogers’ U.S.A., Give ’em Hell, Harry!, The Belle of Amherst) Gray’s one-man shows at the Performing Garage in SoHo were not based on the lives, nor in the words or writing, of anyone but their performer author, who wove idiosyncratic, funny, beautifully expressed monologues from his own experiences, showing up the majority of what were just then beginning to be called “performances artists” for the shabbily pretentious poseurs most of them most assuredly were. The most famous of Gray’s monologues was this one, concerned on a superficial level with his appearance in a small role in Roland Joffe’s shattering 1984 picture The Killing Fields and his search for “the perfect moment” in Thailand afterward but which touches on the most profoundly moving questions of human existence, notably that of the nature and origins of evil, and our own complicity in it. The long middle section, in which Gray presents a pocket history of how the United States’ Defense Department under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger deliberately (and, of course, secretly) bombed a peaceful nation and set in motion a chain of events that encompassed massacre on a small scale (Kent State) and on a massive one: The four-year horror of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia. It’s material gone into in detail by the historian William Shawcross in his book Sideshow, and dramatically of course in the Joffe picture. But one man sitting at a desk calmly yet far from dispassionately describing the obscenities human beings are capable of performing against each other somehow makes the monstrousness so vivid the mind conjures images no camera could capture… and few audiences could bear to watch. As Alistair Cooke once noted, “I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better.”

Take Gray’s portrait of Navy man “Jack Daniels” of Philadelphia, who makes Gray feel, “to some extent like I was looking my death in the face”; Jack, with his cute bod and pasta-shell ears, who says “with great pride” that he has “been properly brainwashed” by the Navy; Jack, chained to a wall in a waterproof chamber, “high on lots of coffee and blue-flake cocaine,” waiting to push his green button and set off a nuclear missile aimed at Russia; Jack sneering at the Russians because, along with their missiles being so poorly designed they’ll land in our cornfields, he’s convinced that on their nuclear submarines “they still speak through tubes.” We can imagine Jack down there in his chamber even now, only instead of a happily-brainwashed Commie-hating conservative he’s morphed into a Trump-deranged Baby-Boom liberal who believes Putin controls America’s perennially fixed elections. But either way, on contemplating those mythological speaking-tubes we can feel, with Gray, an “enormous fondness for the Russian navy, for all of Mother Russia: The thought of these men like innocent children speaking through empty toilet paper rolls, empty paper towel rolls, where you can still hear doubt, confusion, brotherly love, ambivalence… all those human tones, coming through the tube.”

Swimming to Cambodia is a movie I’ve loved for decades and one, like Reds and Norma Rae and The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!, that on revisiting provides something very like complete, almost tactile, pleasure. But it’s almost impossible now to see it, or even to contemplate its title, without reflecting on Gray’s suicide, and the means by which he chose to enact it sixteen years ago; the original poster art, with Gray’s head bisected below his nose by the waves, is even more disturbing in retrospect. Jonathan Demme, who directed the movie, honored Gray, and his words; this was a writer’s picture, not a director’s. Even when he and his cinematographer John Bailey make a filmic choice that draws you out of the live theatre experience through a lighting trick or an audio effect, they do so in service to the performing text — to the mood Gray is setting with it and the intensity with which he sets it. The same holds for the editor, Carol Littleton, and for Laurie Anderson’s evocative music. None of Gray’s collaborators ever gets in his way.

I would love to have seen, and heard, the full four-hour version of Swimming to Cambodia Gray performed before he and Demme pared it down to its essence, but at least one can read that in the published script. The 87 minutes the pair bequeathed give us, as with what the people behind My Dinner with André created, an absolute sense of place and time. And, as with that other very special movie, there are lines and observations here that have been brought back to my mind countless times in the decades since I first heard them. I don’t think a week has passed since I first saw this picture that I have not recalled, or repeated, Gray’s “The Mother needs a rest. Mother Earth deserves a long, long rest with no people on her.” When a movie, or a play, becomes a part of you in that way it attains a kind of radiance that transcends itself, as the best art always does.

A part of me still wants to become Spalding Gray when I grow up. And another part of me thinks that, by so fully internalizing, and so often returning to, this, his most enduring work… I sort of did.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross