SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (1987)

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Directed by Jonathan Demme, written & performed by the late great Spalding Gray.

A few false starts notwithstanding, it has been 5 years since The Lunch Movie has been a regularly scheduled ritual of salvation at 24 frames per second. In my previous talent agency jobs in Los Angeles we screened movies in the conference room every day during our lunch hour. We watched movies that many of my younger coworkers felt remiss for having gotten through college in general, or film school in particular, without having seen. We fostered a climate that rejected “How can you work in the movie business without seeing (fill in the blank)?!” elitism in favor of “Here’s your chance to share this experience with friends” inclusiveness. And then it ended when I left those jobs and moved across the country.

In the interim, The Lunch Movie has become a blog that is part film criticism and part autobiography. Some films, the ones that move me to write, have impacted my life as much as family or close friends or personal heroes. Some films introduce me to personal heroes … but let’s come back to that in a moment. Through this blog I met as many international movie fans as my former legion of conference room coworkers, including the coolest pen-pal a nerd could ever hope for, Craig Jamison from The GullCottage/Sandlot and the driving force behind The Grindhouse With Craig & Jim podcast. In my current job in the Visual & Media Arts Department at Boston’s Emerson College, we have spent the past few summers testing the waters for returning to my old ritual, swimmingtocambodia-03during what is typically the slowest work period for academia. This summer, these seeds have taken root: this fall semester we will test drive the return of The Lunch Movie on Mondays & Fridays.

This Friday, September 12th, we will begin watching the movie that was responsible for my enrolling in Emerson in the summer of 1988: Jonathan Demme‘s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. This is Demme’s record of Spalding Gray‘s stage performance wherein Gray discusses his experiences in Thailand acting in Roland Joffe‘s 1984 film THE KILLING FIELDS. Joffe’s film told the true story of New York Times reporters investigating covert American operations in Vietnam who become swept up in the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I expected SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA to be a predominately making-of documentary, with Gray talking about the day to day process behind Joffe’s Oscar winning production. My expectation turned out to be the frame around a much larger picture. Gray ponders everything from CIA black-ops, swimmingtocambodia-05to his own misadventures everywhere from Manhattan to Bangkok, to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and imperialist sexual tourism, to the search for “a prefect moment” where all of these experiences might crystallize into a moment of clarity.

I saw SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA at the Cedar Lee Theater, alone, because it wasn’t something any high school classmates were interested in. I was driven purely by the respect I felt for THE KILLING FIELDS and a strong recommendation from the Wall St. Journal’s Julie Salamon, paired with a manic version of The Journal’s pointillism portraits featuring Gray in the throws of what looked like an epileptic fit. Within the first few minutes I was grateful that I was alone. Demme’s coverage and Gray’s monologue style are so intimate and confessional that at times I felt like I was watching Gray live in SoHo’s Performance Garage. I was immediately fascinated by him; I imagined the difference between my high school teachers and college professors would be that higher education would expose me to faculty with Gray’s lucid perspective, emotional honesty, intellectual inquisitiveness, and command of both the subjects that he knows as well as the questions that he pursues.

The year after I saw SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, I was enrolled in and weeks away from attending Ohio State University, when my Dad accepted a new job that would move our family from Cleveland to Boston. article01My Mom asked if I wanted to look at Boston area schools so I could study closer to home, which is when I discovered Spalding Gray’s alma mater Emerson College. Roger Ebert‘s review provided me, way before I realized it, a glimpse at why Spalding Gray is the quintessential Emersonian. From a liberal arts school with concentrations in literature, theater, film, performance, and communication disorders comes a man who wrote monologues, essays and novels, performed them in theaters around the world, acted in film and on stage, and whose work in all media reflected and chronicled a lifelong struggle with depression and a family history of suicide.

The first time Maria & I saw Gray live was at Emerson’s then newly acquired Majestic Theater with his MONSTER IN A BOX monologue. Since then I saw him perform on stage and hold literary readings nearly a dozen times in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Usually Maria was with me, but even when I went alone, I didn’t feel alone. That is a power and a skill possessed by a rare breed of performers. Spalding’s own passing occurred within weeks of my Dad’s; the two are somewhat synonymous in my mind. Spalding Gray literally altered the direction of my life, and for better or worse (personally, I feel for the better) helped me become the person I decided to be. To watch Spalding Gray perform is to become aware of the lies you tell yourself to get by one more day, the truth that is busting to be released from you, and the power that both have to change your life and the lives of everyone you touch. To distill that powerful a potion into an 85 minute film is a testament to the artistic symbiosis between Gray & Demme.Swimming-Cambodia

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