With last week’s opening of Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, I’m reminded of the refreshing and edgy works in Demme’s early career in the 1980s: from the incredible Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense (1984) – the chaotically hilarious Jeff Daniels/Melanie Griffith comedy about a free spirited gal who kidnaps a yuppie in Something Wild (1986) – to the equally silly romantic comedy Married to the Mob (1988) about a widowed mob boss’s wife and an FBI agent (with Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, and Alec Baldwin). Yet another one of his most engaging films is his 1987 little gem Swimming to Cambodia. This is mostly an 85-minute film account of actor Spalding Gray’s dramatic monologue, which tells of his nearly two-month experiences – in a bit part in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields and the hilarious perspectives Gray offers in making a film about journalist Sydney Schanberg’s heroic experiences in Cambodia.
The sandy-haired diminutive Gray is the star, writing and dynamically performs this monologue, which he stages in a simple warehouse performance space with periodic back-projections on a small screen. But its Demme’s constantly moving camera, shot in documentary-like fashion by John Bailey, and crisp editing by Carol Littleton, that makes the plaid-shirted man sitting behind a simple wooden table with his notebook, water glass and microphone so interesting and electrifying. A nod of the head, an odd facial expression, with a sarcastic aside, are accented expertly with the most telling close ups followed by the quick juxtaposition to a slightly different perspective.
From the arrival in Thailand, a discussion of the Thai pleasure principle, and numerous local hideous pleasures, to disagreements with his lady friend, Renee, insights about working with his co-stars Sam Waterston or Athol Furgard, and even further to imitations of the British Joffe’s insightful cinematic observations and various Cold War tales, Gray keeps his audience in stitches. He achieves all this in spite of of the grim and serious content in The Killing Fields and Gray’s depiction of the Cambodian national turmoil. This content included depicting the final days of American involvement in this Southeast Asian nation, devastation by the off-shoot of the Vietnam war, and the ruthless rule of various dictators and other regimes. Scenes are further accented with the music of famed ‘80s performance artist Laurie Anderson.
While Demme would go on to win an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs and praise for Philadelphia in the ‘90s, nothing tops the pure vitality and energy of his ‘80s work. Swimming to Cambodia is a uniquely funny film that makes you feel like you’re experiencing Gray in person.