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Swimming to Cambodia DVD Review

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) movie poster Swimming to Cambodia

Theatrical Release: March 13, 1987 / Running Time: 85 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Jonathan Demme / Writer: Spalding Gray

Cast: Spalding Gray (Himself)

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The film career of Spalding Gray was unlike any other. As an actor, he appeared in a variety of things over the course of forty years, including projects as vulgar as "The Nanny", Kate & Leopold, and How High. And yet, Gray has a legacy above and beyond someone with such a filmography. It's not your everyday actor who becomes the subject of a Steven Soderbergh documentary.

Soderbergh directed Gray twice, first in the 1993 Great Depression drama King of the Hill and then in the 1996 film Gray's Anatomy. The latter is more representative of Gray's body of work and speaks to the esteem in which he is still held nearly ten years after his apparent suicide following a viewing of Big Fish.
Anatomy was one of a handful of films adapted from autobiographical monologues that Gray wrote and performed as one-man stage shows. The first such adaptation, Swimming to Cambodia, came in 1987 and brought Gray prominence that had eluded him for twenty years of stage and screen acting.

Gray had performed Cambodia off-Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater 51 times throughout the summer of 1986. Shortly thereafter, he teamed with Jonathan Demme, a director who had emerged from the so-called Roger Corman Film School to a respectable and varied career that would soon yield the Oscar-decorated The Silence of the Lambs, to put Cambodia on film. There isn't much demand for one-man shows in the film business, but the independent studio Cinecom believed in the project and would roll it out to twenty-one theaters to a somewhat impressive $1.1 million gross. Afterwards, Gray found himself in greater demand by the industry, and would fill supporting roles as doctors in Beaches and Dolly Parton's Straight Talk. Such work seemed secondary to Gray's personal monologues, which won him a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Book Award.

As this title shot illustrates, the production budget for "Swimming to Cambodia" covered such extravagant expenses as a glass of water, a microphone, a Ronald McDonald notebook, and a desk. Spalding Gray uses a pointer and pull-down maps to illustrate some bits of 20th century Cambodian history.

Cambodia relays Gray's experiences playing a small role in The Killing Fields. That 1984 film dramatized the Cambodian Holocaust of the 1970s, an horrific chapter of history to which Gray devotes a good amount of time. Dressed in a plaid shirt whose sleeves are soon rolled up and equipped with a Ronald McDonald notebook and a glass of water, Gray runs through his largely anecdotal bits with vigor and gusto. He is clearly gifted as both a wordsman and storyteller. He seems to consult the notebook as a mere formality as he speaks precisely and directly, with no flubs and few edits.

When he's not giving us a taste of Cambodian history with pull-down maps aiding his lessons on the US Operation Breakfast bombing and the Khmer Rouge regime that had starving, laughing 11-12-year-olds killing innocent citizens with axes, Gray shares stories of his time spent in and around Bangkok for eight weeks during the production of Killing Fields. He describes a Thai hotel as a pleasure prison and explains the different services you can expect of the local prostitutes, from massage parlors to live shows. Gray also explains his quest for a perfect moment, as any effects of his drug experimentation were negated by the tight grip of anxiety. Gray opens up about his relationship with girlfriend Renιe Shafransky, a producer on this film who would become his wife from 1991 to 1993. He uses their experiences with a loud upstairs neighbor playing Bob Dylan's "Sara" at all hours of the night as a metaphor for international relations.

A licensed clip shows Spalding Gray sharing the screen with a bearded Sam Waterston in "The Killing Fields." Jonathan Demme bathes Spalding Gray in red and green light for one dramatic passage from the film.

Painting vivid pictures with his words, Gray makes us feel present as he comes close to his desired perfect moment, braving Indian Ocean waves while worrying about the saved-up per diem wad he has hidden on the beach. He also gives us an honest look at his profession,
recalling the difficulty of getting through the technical jargon of his final scene of Killing Fields (whose shooting he claims required 66 takes throughout a long night) and the ease of performing amidst whirling helicopters.

Demme does what he can to spice up the performance, utilizing a number of lighting changes, camera moves, some sound effects, and a very 1980s-sounding score by Laurie Anderson. He even provides a couple of fitting excerpts of Gray's Killing Fields scenes. Such flourishes don't hurt, but Gray's passionate delivery and candor don't seem to require any of them to sustain your attention. A film consisting of a man sitting at a desk and talking for 80 minutes should have trouble keeping you engaged, but Gray's command, composure, and compelling content all effortlessly prevent you from drifting even slightly.

Long widely unavailable and never before on DVD in the United States, Swimming to Cambodia gets a new Region 1 disc next Tuesday from Shout! Factory, who licenses this title from MGM.

Swimming to Cambodia DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: May 28, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $19.93
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Clear Keepcase


While I no doubt have been spoiled by regular exposure to excellent Blu-ray transfers, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of Swimming to Cambodia seems a tad disappointing even for a standard definition release of a low-budget 25-year-old experimental film. The picture is dark and shows quite a bit of wear and debris throughout. It's still watchable and likely far better than the VHS you'd previously have to settle for, but knowing the effort Shout! gives its releases, you might well expect better than this. It's worth noting that the licensed scenes from The Killing Fields look quite a bit worse than the rest of Swimming.

The soundtrack is offered in plain old 2.0 Dolby Stereo and that suits the material fine. Gray's words are always crisp and never drowned out by other sounds or music. Still, it is very disappointing to encounter a DVD in 2013 that offers neither subtitles nor the once viable closed captioning. There's a good chance that diminishes the enjoyment of some viewers belonging to Gray's generation.

Director Jonathan Demme reflects on working with Spalding Gray in this new 2013 interview. The main menu for Shout! Factory's "Swimming to Cambodia" DVD offers the fewest options it can.


The DVD includes just one bonus feature,
but it is a substantial one. In a brand new interview (16:41), director Jonathan Demme reflects on the film and working with its star/creator. He tackles every topic you might wonder about, including the evolution of Gray's show, the nature of directing this film, licensing clips from The Killing Fields, the film's classification, and Laurie Anderson's music.

The static lone menu attaches a looped minute of 8-bit-esque score to the cover art, while simply giving you the choice to watch either the movie or the bonus feature. That's right, the disc even forgoes a chapter menu.

The disc is packaged in one of Shout! Factory's preferred clear keepcases, which displays artwork on the cover's reverse side.

Spalding Gray acts out Cambodians waving goodbye to departing American helicopters in his 1987 monologue film "Swimming to Cambodia."


With this release, Swimming to Cambodia becomes a whole lot easier and more affordable to see and own than it has been in a long time, which is good news for fans of Spalding Gray's first monologue film. A movie as unorthodox as this will not be to everyone's liking, but there is a lot to appreciate in this arresting one-man show. Shout! Factory's long overdue DVD doesn't offer the prettiest feature presentation. Still, the fine new Jonathan Demme interview makes it a bit easier to overlook the untimeliness of this release, the lack of a Blu-ray edition, and the unfortunate omission of subtitles and captioning.

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Related Reviews:
Featuring Spalding Gray: Glory Daze • Beaches | New: Barrymore • Stand Up Guys • 3:10 to Yuma
1980s Movies: Wall Street • Platoon • Good Morning, Vietnam • New York Stories • Deathtrap
Vanya on 42nd Street • Apocalypse Now • Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel • Lewis Black: In God We Rust • Jack Goes Boating

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Reviewed May 21, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1987 Cinecom International Films, The Swimming Company, Inc., 2013 Shout! Factory and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.