Saturday, 2 February 2013

Gray’s Anatomy (1996) - Steven Soderbergh

This is the last of the four monologues Spalding Gray filmed for the big screen, before his suspected suicide almost ten years ago. Gray’s Anatomy is basically about Spalding’s experience after he discovered that the vision in his left eye had become fuzzy. After visiting an eye surgeon and being told that an operation was inevitable, Spalding decided to try absolutely everything he could think of to fix his eyesight rather than going under the knife. And of course Spalding being Spalding he turned it into one of his best monologues.

For those unaware of who Spalding Gray is let me start by saying he’s a bit of an acquired taste. But once you fall for him you won’t be able to get enough. Primarily an actor, but finding writing more rewarding, he’s probably most famous for his one man shows. Sitting behind a desk with a notebook, microphone and a glass of water and would pour forth amusing, poignant and often tragic stories from his own life. Think a slightly more neurotic Woody Allen and you’re in the right ballpark.

Both Jonathan Demme and Nick Broomfield have had a crack at filming a Spalding monologue before, with Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Monster in a Box (1991) respectively. Both opted for the straightforward approach of what you’d see at one of his shows, quite spartan. What Soderbergh does is throw all that out of the window and do what he often does in his films, which is to do things in a way they haven’t been done before. So straight away there’s no audience and everything is far more stylized. For the scene in the doctors waiting room Soderbergh shoots through a opaque glass door. Likewise for the trawl through various alternative medicines Soderbergh uses various film making techniques to highlight what Spalding is rabbiting on about. It works a treat, never detracting from Spalding, and actually makeing it more of a film than the previous two efforts.

Gray’s Anatomy doesn’t actually open with Spalding Gray at all, but rather a series of short interviews with people who have all suffered some form of eye injury. My favorite of these is the woman who put super glue in her eye thinking it was eye drops. These interviews are filmed in stark black and white and look gorgeous. At various points in the film these interviewees return and say what they think of the various weird alternatives that Spalding is trying. Making them basically a representation of the audience. It’s a good idea that works really well.

If you don’t know Spalding Gray then either this or the equally aces Swimming to Cambodia are perfect places to start. I think this might have the edge since it’s visually rich too, the blood red lighting and silhouettes used for his visit to a psychic doctor in the Philippines being a particular highlight. Oh and there’s a wonderful minimalistic score by Soderbergh favourite Cliff Martinez too. So come on what are you waiting for?

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