Monday, March 19, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.8: Jonathan Demme's Swimming to Cambodia


In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 89 (A-)

Spalding Gray was a struggling actor and playwright with only a few credits to his name when he was cast in a supporting role in The Killing Fields, a highly acclaimed film about the Cambodian genocide as seen through the eyes of American journalist Sydney Shanberg (Sam Waterston) and Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor in an Oscar-winning role). Gray turned his experiences making the film into the off-Broadway show Swimming to Cambodia, which brought attention to Gray and his unique minimalist theatre- a monologue conversation in tone but told by an expert storyteller. But only a director like Jonathan Demme could adapt such a simple piece of theatre into a film without making the piece seem like a filmed play.

Gray gives background on the Cambodian Genocide: the Khmer Rouge and their vicious leader Pol Pot tried to create an agrarian-based society through radical social reform. They forced men, women, and children out of the cities and forced them into the agricultural fields now referred to as “the Killing Fields”. There, they executed anyone they believed to be enemies of the government: capitalists, city-people, intellectuals, artists, and others. The group gained power during America’s involvement in Vietnam after Richard Nixon ordered bombings on Cambodia, which only further radicalized the people and gave further incentive for them to join the Khmer Rouge.

Gray gives his own unique spin on the Cambodian Genocide: he equates Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to American rednecks and racists, and he accuses Nixon and the U.S. military of being proud of killing thousands of people. For this, Gray takes an ironic tone that contrasts his simple detailing of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes in graphic detail later on. Gray then jumps around to his living in New York, where he deals with noisy neighbors, a native New Yorker girlfriend not afraid of threatening those neighbors (“bitch, cunt, you wanna die?!”), a U.S. army officer ready to bomb the Russians (whom the man believes to be subhuman). He also jumps to the making of the film, the bizarre sex and massage bars on the Thai locations, the magnificent marijuana he smoked there, and his searching for a “perfect moment” while in Thailand.

Gray is a natural storyteller who knows when to lighten up, when to get serious, and when to get wild. He crafts a vivid self-portrait of a man hung up on his own neuroticisms, his liberal views compared with his non-active political nature, and his need to feel like he’s part of something. With The Killing Fields, Gray felt like he could truly help tell a story that needed to be told, feel like he’s acting for a big production without acting “for the machine”, and have some control over his own destiny. That the man is such a passionate and quirky storyteller only adds to his stories of debauchery on the set of a major film (“the character would have been drinking, so I’m in character!”).

Swimming to Cambodia is a performance film in the same style as Demme’s Stop Making Sense: Demme yields the floor to his unique subject and tries to craft a vivid experience rather than document an event. Demme doesn’t hide the audience as Gray enters the room, but he minimizes the noise of their laugh so that the viewer can make up his/her own mind about Gray’s stories.  Demme has less of a challenge hiding cameras when he’s only documenting one man on a stage (and Swimming to Cambodia has a much less sweeping feel as a result), but Swimming to Cambodia never feels static despite its inherent smallness (a propulsive minimalist score by composer Laurie Anderson helps). Demme makes intelligent use of close-ups, wide shots, and edits when necessary. Perhaps the best sign of Demme’s talent as a documentarian is his clever shooting of the “conversation” between Gray and the bonehead Army Officer he met, in which Demme switches cameras whenever Gray switches characters.

Swimming to Cambodia might not be an achievement on the same level as Stop Making Sense, but it is nevertheless a film that helped established Gray as an important figure in underground theatre and an unjustly overlooked film in Demme’s oeuvre. Part of the problem stems from the film’s unavailability: it is notoriously difficult to track down on DVD*, and I’m one of those lucky enough to own it on VHS**. It is currently playing on YouTube for anyone interested in it. I highly recommend it: in the world of theatre, no man could talk like Spalding Gray, and in the world of film, no man could adapt it like Jonathan Demme.


*Steven Soderbergh, arguably the Jonathan Demme of his time, would later film the Gray performance-film Gray’s Anatomy; after Gray’s suicide Soderbergh shot the documentary And Now Everything is Fine, which chronicled the man’s life. Both films are being released on Criterion Edition DVDs in June. Swimming to Cambodia deserves the same treatment.

**Thank you, Br. Tom Murphy, for giving me a copy years ago.


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