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‘Swimming to Cambodia’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 01, 1987

"Swimming to Cambodia" is a plunge into the mind of Spalding Gray, who tells you -- seated at his desk with his writing pad, glass of water and roll-down map -- about his travails and ecstasies as a bit player in Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields."

One man sitting there on stage, talking about himself to camera and live audience, might seem about the last thing anyone would want to film, or see. But the vivid anecdotes coming from Gray's hangdog face, spoken with his deadpan, retread-hippy idioms, are funny and touching. He is a storyteller in the tradition of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson -- the psyche as touchstone. And whatever tickles Gray, tickles you.

Gray's mono-mental odyssey takes you from Manhattan to the Gulf of Siam, which he describes as "one big piece of calendar art." And along the streams-of-consciousness way, you will encounter Richard Nixon, the Kent State massacre, the Khmer Rouge and a missile-happy nutcase from the Navy by the name of Jack Daniels.

After copping a part in "Killing Fields" as an aide to the American ambassador, Gray is off on a sort of fear-and-loathing jaunt in Thailand. Bangkok is studded with sex clubs and the inhabitants, Gray is told, are "the nicest people money can buy." He must also work with a director who exhibits traits of "Zorro, Jesus and Rasputin."

Gray also happens to be going through a patchy period with his girlfriend, and is obsessed with finding a "perfect moment," which evidently is the 1980s' answer to LSD. That moment -- a combination of ectasy, fear and self-discovery -- happens after a near-drowning in the surf off the island of Phuket.

Director Jonathan Demme ("Stop Making Sense") preserves the live feel of Gray's performance (recorded over three consecutive days before a New York audience) with three simultaneously running cameras. He keeps things visually active by intercutting among cameras, theatrical use of lighting and by cutting to Gray's actual scenes in "Killing Fields." Laurie Anderson adds a dramatic undercurrent to "Cambodia" with her punchy, contemporary score.

As lectures go, this may be the most fun one yet.

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