Writing by Megan Scanlon. Megan works at the American University of Beirut. She has written for the DOC NYC blog and the Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship. Megan is a volunteer at the Bronx Documentary Center where she contributes to documentary programming. Follow her on instagram and twitter @
Stranger Than Fiction headed into week two of its six-week Jonathan Demme retrospective on Tuesday night, welcoming another full house of docufiles for Demme’s 1987 performance feature, Swimming to Cambodia. A quick survey of the audience revealed that the room was split between veterans and new recruits of the Spalding Gray monologue, a grand story that revolves loosely around Gray’s role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, a film about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
At a surface level, “monologue” seems a wholly inadequate description, scarcely containing Gray’s exquisite cosmic theater, and yet, in its capacity for depth, it’s the monologue that gives Gray a space, an outlet, a release for his seismic prose.
Shot in 35 mm, the magic of the flicker adds graininess and texture, tangible, real, infinitesimal imperfections that are dwarfed by the grotesqueness of the content it overlays–the Khmer Rouge. Lead by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge unleashed a genocide of shockingly horrifying proportions, but as Gray says, “Who needs metaphors and poetry for hell, this happened, kids torn about like fresh bread in front of their mothers, on this earth.”
Gray weaves in and out of conversations and experiences and observations, revealing the zeitgeist of the times and the bullet holes that shred those notions of consensual reality. For instance, “Operation Menu” was a secret U.S. bombing campaign ordered by former President Nixon targeting the Vietcong and Khmer Rouge. In a style akin to a plane swirling through a hurricane before it is spit out, Gray says:
“This bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing…and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.”
When Gray meets “Jack Daniels” on an Amtrak train, Jack, after a drink, confesses his role as a bomb dropper for the United States military. Drink after drink, what begins as a thinly veiled confession mutates as Jack aggrandizes his role as a coked up bomb dropper who will have political and so called moral immunity. During his searingly ugly tirade he says, “The Russians are stupid people, they’re backwards. You know on their ships, they don’t even have electrical intercoms? They still speak through tubes?”
As himself, Gray discloses, “Suddenly, I had this 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.”
These stories are set up against the backdrop of Gray’s quest for a perfect moment in Southeast Asia, a moment that will provide him with closure to return home. Vacillating between concepts in a way that is dizzying without being confusing, on language and communication in New York City, he poses, “How does a country like America – or rather how does America, because certainly there’s no country like it — begin to find the language to negotiate or talk with a country like Russia or Libya if I can’t even begin to get it with my people on the corner of Broadway and John Street?”
The questions Gray posits and his delivery of them were a wonderful feature of the post-screening Q&A. STF Host Thom Powers spoke with Demme and Producer Renee Shafransky before opening it up to the audience. Demme was initially reluctant when he first heard about the show. “As a New Yorker you start hearing about this amazing storyteller, ‘you gotta see this sitting at a card table and just talking for 2 hours.’ I was like, ‘oh right I do not want to be trapped in that room’ and then finally went and understood that it’s the best show in town. You can’t beat this, you can have more production value, a bigger cast, all kinds of stuff, but one person sharing an extraordinary story is very tough to beat.”
The tenacious Shafransky struggled bringing this extraordinary live performance to film. “Spalding was performing it for years, it was a two part theatrical piece performed part one on one night, part two on another, each one 2 hours long, and he was tired and wanted to move on. I was sad then at the idea that this will go away. I thought it was such a fascinating melding of the personal and political and I didn’t want it to be gone. Reading it on paper was not the same, and Jonathan said yes and stuck with it. What a life force at that point in time, channeled.”