When it comes to adapting a stage performance to a movie, directors always expound upon wanting top “open” things up. They want to do away with the artifice of the stage. They devise how to tear down the backdrops and replace them with vistas. They calculate how to make the dialogue more real by slicing away the words so it’s more show than tell. But what do you do when the play is simply a man sitting at a desk and talking the entire time? Spaulding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia was his monologue about his experiences from acting in The Killing Fields. The Oscar winning film was about the friendship between a New York Times reporter and his fellow Cambodian journalist during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Gray was hired to play an aide to the U.S. ambassador in the film. It wasn’t a huge role, but it became bigger when Jonathan Demme came on board to bring Swimming to Cambodia to the big screen.
Demme captures Gray’s performance instead of fooling us into thinking this wasn’t meant for the stage. The movie opens with Gray arriving at the Performing Garage in New York City’s Soho district. He gets on stage, sits down at a desk, opens his notebook and begins his talk. There are a few props on the stage to help illustrate Gray’s words including a map of Southeast Asia to orient the audience to Cambodia and Thailand (where The Killing Fields was shot). Demme does allow for clips from The Killing Fields to be shown to let us see that Gray really was in the movie.
The soundtrack is used to open up the monologue. Music and effects from The Killing Fields punctuate the words. Laurie Anderson’s subtle score keeps us from being overwhelmed by the breathing of the actual audience. Nothing on the screen takes away from the experience of Gray’s monologue. He doesn’t give an audio commentary to the movie. He speaks of his experiences of the set, but not the stories that the studio want related on the DVD. He lays out the sex and drugs that the crew enjoyed while on location in Thailand. He speaks of his marriage and his desire for the perfect moment to wrap up his time on the production. Swimming to Cambodia is one of the great art films of the ’80s since it dares to go against the grain of a conventional Hollywood film yet is engaging and entertaining. It’s like My Dinner With Andre without Andre or the waiter. Swimming to Cambodia is merely a man at a table with a glass of water and a unquenchable story.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the fine work of cinematographer John Bailey. He does his best to bring out the passion, frustration and regret in Gray’s face. His lighting shifts get their impact restored. The audio is Dolby Digital stereo
Interview with Jonathan Demme (16:41) lets him explain how he approached the movie. He touches upon the death of Gray in 2004.
Swimming to Cambodia is a masterpiece in minimalistic cinema. Spaulding Gray commands the screen with his solo performance. It’s the perfect moment captured on 35mm.
Shout! Factory presents Swimming to Cambodia. Directed by: Jonathan Demme. Written by Spaulding Gray. Starring: Spaulding Gray. Running Time: 85 minutes. Released: May 28, 2013. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Jonathan Demme