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'Swimming to Cambodia' (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 01, 1987

"Swimming to Cambodia" is a movie about making a movie, a short version of Spalding Gray's one-man stage show on his adventures as an actor in "The Killing Fields." It's not the monotonous, neurotic's ego trip you'd imagine, but a karate-chop crawl against a rising tide of complacency. The screen goes Gray. And this member of two endangered species -- liberals and raconteurs -- splashes us good with a mighty funny monologue.

In this mercurial, mesmerizing, mind-expanding adaptation of his show, Gray builds another world with words. He rushes them like a manic man making the most of an hour's worth of therapy. So there's no time to hang on his every word. We've got to wear running shoes on our ears to keep up with his parables.

Without costumes or props, he recreates the characters and events of the jungle movie shoot and his own search for the "perfect moment." Based on a single line on his resume', he builds from trivial egocentricity to the enormity of the Cambodian holocaust, single-handedly with the most ancient of dramatic structures. Gray talks and talks and talks. He talks about Bangkok sex clubs and his girl back in Crumville. He talks about how he got the part from "Killing Fields" director Roland Joffe'. "I said I knew nothing about politics, that I didn't even vote," recalls Gray. "Perfect," replies Joffe', "You're to play the American ambassador's aide." And he talks about his plunge into the rough coastal waters that gives the movie its title.

He describes Joffe' as a combination of "Rasputin, Jesus and Zorro," and making a movie with that obsessive perfectionist as an amalgam of art, politics, bad trips and good times. The monologuist reminisces about a paranoid moment at the seashore, brought on by guilt, primo Thai dope and the persuasive powers of a South African hipster named Ivan.

Just by turning his head, Gray calls up an impersonation of Ivan, Joffe' or the veddy British actor who advises, "Take what you have learned here back to Crumville." Gray's characters are every bit as comically effective as Lily Tomlin's, but they're coming from this nondescript white guy who never gets out of his chair. Armed with nothing but a glass of water, a couple of grade-school geography class maps and a pointer, he sits at a battered, wooden desk like a teacher. Even his hair is the color of an erased blackboard. With comic sugar and unforgettable imagery, he teaches us about "the worst auto-homo-genocide in modern history," the "redneck" Khmer Rouge's slaughter of 2 million fellow Cambodians.

Boys as young as 10 pulled babies from mothers' arms "and tore them apart like loaves of bread," he tells us. He seems to know that sometimes we can bear to hear what we cannot bear to see. Still we are left with the facts and the picture of babies killing babies -- sick dreams that make an epic tale.

Gray began to write and perform his personal address dialogues after cocreating the Wooster theater group with Elizabeth LeCompte in 1977. In 1980, he expanded the technique to include the audience with a work called "Interviewing the Audience." Then came "Sex and Death to the Age 14," first of his autobiographical monologues and the beginning of his style. Gray's other movie credit is David Byrne's "True Stories," in which he played a parochial Texan who hadn't spoken to his wife in years.

His Obie-winning "Swimming to Cambodia" began as a two-part, three-hour performance which visited the New Playwrights' Theatre on tour here in 1985. The condensed version is based largely on Part 1, with highlights from Part 2. Concert movie master Jonathan Demme, acclaimed for his spartan approach to the Talking Heads' movie "Stop Making Sense," directs here with similar restraint, eliminating the tired conventions of the concert genre. No backstage interviews, no crosscuts to the audience engrossed, no insiders' looks at roadies setting up for the show.

Hanging from the ceiling during Gray's show, Demme choreographed a trio of cameramen, changing the tempo to match the mood. The angles give us insight into the nature of the moment, capturing the roller-coaster delivery of the chair-bound chatterbox. They're like a pack of wolves, loping around the edge of the campfire, trying to get at the storyteller.

You can hear the audience listening. And Laurie Anderson enhances the monologue with a sound track of avant-garde noise for screen -- copters chop the imaginary Asian sky, surf pounds and there are whispers of nightfall. The lighting, theatrical and red like sex and hell, adds still more screen drama. Gray's glitches give it a you-are-there feel, and Demme ups the ante with clips of "The Killing Fields" spliced into the monologue. The technique doesn't always work -- it brings in extraneous asides -- but the poignant payoff justifies the intrusion.

"Swimming to Cambodia" means to intrude upon the complacency that has come over us, the listlessness and the irresponsibility. It is meant to remind us that Kent State came about in response to the secret bombing of Cambodia, and so did the massacre that followed. It is meant to counter the vapid, soft-soap post-flower-power comedy that purports to pass as political satire: The mewling slop of "Saturday Night Live's" nonnews, the likes of "Spitting Image," with those dopey British puppets.

A man with a delivery that ranges from matter-of-fact to spittle-flying hysteria is telling us true stories, funny, bizarre and unbelievable, little anecdotes that mount up from personal neurosis to nuclear holocaust. And he never seems to sweat. His stories all circle back on themselves like old tail-chasing fox stoles or sharks in a concentric ballet. And Gray does have his Perfect Moment, effecting closure, swimming back to the shore that was Cambodia.

"Swimming to Cambodia" contains obscene language and violent references.

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