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by Garon Cockrell
Swimming To Cambodia DVD Review
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By Garon Cockrell
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April 26, 2013 5:28 p.m.

Swimming To
Cambodia is a fairly incredible film of Spalding Gray’s performance. I’m
laughing before he even starts – when he shifts the glass of water from one
side of the microphone to the other. He can make even the simplest of actions
seem funny and absurd. Once seated, and once the water is on the correct side
of the microphone, he begins.
He sets the scene – June 18, 1983 in Thailand – and he is
off and running, describing a scene with all the right details, told with just
the right twisted sense. He’s part beat poet, part comedian, part educator, and
completely enthralling. He’s an excellent storyteller, for this film is
seriously compelling, and really, it’s just him seated behind a table, talking.
Of course, he does have a few props. In addition to the
glass of water, he uses a couple of maps – Cambodia, Vietnam – and suddenly
you’re getting a history lesson and actually learning something. He has a
pointer to indicate specific places on the maps without having to get up, and some
sheets of paper on the table.
Most of this performance is related to his experience
with The Killing Fields (and a few
scenes from that film are edited into this performance, which is a nice touch
and makes me want to revisit that film). He talks about looking for the perfect
moment in a foreign country, and not being able to leave until he has it. Later
he talks about other obsessions, obsessive behavior – with the number three
becoming important, and needing to turn off the radio on a positive word before
leaving his home each day.
He talks about traveling by train, about meeting people
in lounge cars. The guy he meets on one particular lounge car is frightening,
seriously terrifying, partly because of Spalding’s description and partly
because his impersonation is so intense, so detailed – his voice, everything
about him changes.
His description of the prostitutes and that whole scene
is also incredible. He is terrifically funny, and then he can be quite moving,
intense. His stories put you right there, so you feel you’re seeing – if not
experiencing – every situation he describes. And his description of the killing
done by children is chilling. I wish I could have seen Spalding Gray perform
live, but this film seems a close second to that experience.
Swimming To
Cambodia was directed by Jonathan Demme, and features music by Laurie Anderson. The film is not divided into
chapters on this DVD, but is presented as one chapter. Shockingly, this is the first official U.S. release of this excellent film on DVD.
Bonus Feature
The DVD includes a new interview with director Jonathan
Demme, in which he talks about how he got involved with the project (around the
time of Something Wild). I love that
he admits, “I can’t say that I directed
Spalding. I directed the film.” He does mention Spalding’s use of such
few props. “It was brilliant and bold of
him to sort of understand that those few items would carry such great weight
with the audience.” He also talks about getting the rights to footage from The Killing Fields.
Swimming To Cambodia
is scheduled to be released on May 28, 2013 through Shout! Factory.

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