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Friday, April 26, 2013

Swimming To Cambodia DVD Review



Swimming To Cambodia is a fairly incredible film of Spalding Gray’s performance. I’m laughing before he even starts – when he shifts the glass of water from one side of the microphone to the other. He can make even the simplest of actions seem funny and absurd. Once seated, and once the water is on the correct side of the microphone, he begins.

He sets the scene – June 18, 1983 in Thailand – and he is off and running, describing a scene with all the right details, told with just the right twisted sense. He’s part beat poet, part comedian, part educator, and completely enthralling. He’s an excellent storyteller, for this film is seriously compelling, and really, it’s just him seated behind a table, talking.

Of course, he does have a few props. In addition to the glass of water, he uses a couple of maps – Cambodia, Vietnam – and suddenly you’re getting a history lesson and actually learning something. He has a pointer to indicate specific places on the maps without having to get up, and some sheets of paper on the table.

Most of this performance is related to his experience with The Killing Fields (and a few scenes from that film are edited into this performance, which is a nice touch and makes me want to revisit that film). He talks about looking for the perfect moment in a foreign country, and not being able to leave until he has it. Later he talks about other obsessions, obsessive behavior – with the number three becoming important, and needing to turn off the radio on a positive word before leaving his home each day.

He talks about traveling by train, about meeting people in lounge cars. The guy he meets on one particular lounge car is frightening, seriously terrifying, partly because of Spalding’s description and partly because his impersonation is so intense, so detailed – his voice, everything about him changes.

His description of the prostitutes and that whole scene is also incredible. He is terrifically funny, and then he can be quite moving, intense. His stories put you right there, so you feel you’re seeing – if not experiencing – every situation he describes. And his description of the killing done by children is chilling. I wish I could have seen Spalding Gray perform live, but this film seems a close second to that experience.

Swimming To Cambodia was directed by Jonathan Demme, and features music by Laurie Anderson. The film is not divided into chapters on this DVD, but is presented as one chapter.  Shockingly, this is the first official U.S. release of this excellent film on DVD.

Bonus Feature

The DVD includes a new interview with director Jonathan Demme, in which he talks about how he got involved with the project (around the time of Something Wild). I love that he admits, “I can’t say that I directed Spalding. I directed the film.” He does mention Spalding’s use of such few props. “It was brilliant and bold of him to sort of understand that those few items would carry such great weight with the audience.” He also talks about getting the rights to footage from The Killing Fields.

Swimming To Cambodia is scheduled to be released on May 28, 2013 through Shout! Factory.

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