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DVD Review: Audacious ‘Swimming to Cambodia’ Gets Long-Awaited Release

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CHICAGO – Moviegoers allergic to copious amounts of talk will be hacking and wheezing minutes into “Swimming to Cambodia.” It’s a cinematically lensed 1987 recording of a show that consists entirely of actor/writer Spalding Gray sitting in a chair telling stories. He’s a vibrant presence and a brilliant wordsmith, but his mouth could literally talk one’s ear into a coma.

Viewers unfamiliar with Gray and the topics he explores may find this picture to be a rather exhausting, borderline unendurable experience, at least initially, but it does prove to be very much worth the effort. Gray is so familiar with every word and beat (having performed them countless times) that he is occasionally guilty of blazing through passages that may have benefited from more attention. Yet the disorientation of Gray’s bombastic approach does create a certain dizzying sensation appropriate to the show’s intended sensory overload.

HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 4.0/5.0
DVD Rating: 4.0/5.0

Recalling his experience of playing a minor role in Roland Joffé’s 1984 Oscar-winner, “The Killing Fields,” Gray takes the audience through a series of wildly diverse vignettes, some darkly amusing, others horrifying. He switches between behind-the-scenes remembrances and historical background on the film’s real-life Cambodian locations. The gleam of mischief and alarm ever-present in Gray’s eyes assures us that not one instant of his speech will register as a dry history lesson. The film is at its strongest when Gray’s words create the sort of vivid, implacable imagery in one’s mind that used to be the specialty of radio. Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” genocide of 1975 hovers over Gray’s guided tour through Cambodia until it surges to the forefront in a shattering, unforgettable “flashback.” No archival footage is utilized aside from excerpts of Joffé’s film, which serve as a visual aid not unlike the map Gray scrolls down to reference. There’s also enough propeller shadows on hand to fill several more redux of “Apocalypse Now,” yet nothing distracts the lens from maintaining its single-minded focus on the actor’s tour de force work. The film’s humor may not have aged well (there are several references guaranteed to perplex young viewers), but its scathing commentary on mankind’s heart of darkness is utterly timeless.

Swimming to Cambodia was released on DVD on May 28th, 2013.
Swimming to Cambodia was released on DVD on May 28th, 2013.
Photo credit: Shout Factory

This DVD marks the first home video release for “Swimming to Cambodia” in quite some time. It has long been out of print, and the mere existence of this disc will undoubtedly justify the purchase price for fans. Yet it’s a shame just how bare-bones this release is. The film is presented in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio and includes no subtitles at all. That leaves the film unavailable for viewers who are hard of hearing, though Gray’s motormouth delivery is so mind-bogglingly fast that perhaps no subtitle track would’ve been able to do it justice without covering the entire screen. The sole extra is a 16-minute conversation with director Jonathan Demme, whose career in documentary filmmaking (and guerrilla-style narratives like “Rachel Getting Married”) made him an ideal choice for this project. Yet Demme rightly insists that “Cambodia” is a “performance film” rather than a documentary, and takes no credit whatsoever for Gray’s work. After a 2-day shooting schedule and a few weeks of post-production, editor Carol Littleton showed the director her first cut of the film. According to Demme, it was identical to the cut included on this disc.

‘Swimming to Cambodia’ is released by Shout Factory and stars Spalding Gray. It is written by Spalding Gray and directed by Jonathan Demme. It was released on May 28th, 2013. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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