Television: Facts that spoilt the fiction

Steven Soderberg was a poor choice of director for Spalding Gray

Gray's Anatomy

BBC2

Monologue television requires diffident directors. There is no point in getting Peter Greenaway to call the shots for An Audience with Dame Edna. It is work best done by talents willing to remain anonymous. Does anyone remember who directed AJP Taylor's talks on the origins of the First World War? Or Kenneth Williams on Jackanory? Or Alan Bennett's Talking Heads? Directors who try to get clever with material like this usually end up working against their star performer.

So, the best aspect of the decision to hire Steven Soderbergh as the director of a filmed version of Spalding Gray's confessional monologue, , was that it added a second recognisable name to the closing credits.

If you have read Swimming to Cambodia, or were lucky enough to see it performed live, you will know that Gray needs no interlocutor. His voice - which can hurtle between yammering NYC and cultured, eiderdown-soft Bostonian - is persuasive enough. The only props he needs are that wide, pouty mouth, those black Mephistophelian eyebrows and that swoop of steel-grey hair. But rather than let him get on with his story, Soderbergh repeatedly obscured our view of his performer with distracting visual flourishes.

Gray's central subject is himself. This material (first published in 1994) is a medical memoir, the story of Gray's anxious attempts to get a "pucker" ironed out of his left eye. With his own ocular health as the focus of his monologue, Gray became more self-regarding than ever. It was all I, I, eye.

Sitting in a room shuttered with Venetian blinds, he related how he suffered the cruel sarcasm of Manhattan's ophthalmologists, how he sweltered in a supposedly curative "Indian Sweat Lodge" and how he visited Manila to consult "the Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons" - a lunatic quack who claimed he could rip diseased tissue from his patients' bodies using only his bare hands.

These horror stories, it soon became obvious, were there only to point up Gray's own charming and sensitive nature. He pitched his own incredulity - "I couldn't believe my eye!" - against the sneaky knowingness of the charlatans and sadists who tried to cure him. He is writing in a long tradition of turning medical trauma into proof of exquisite sensibility. You could easily imagine him in an 18th-century salon, being cooed over by a gaggle of vapourish ladies who had just read George Cheyne's The English Malady. ("One shall suffer more from the Prick of a Pin, or Needle, from their extreme sensibility, than others from being run thro' the Body," wrote Cheyne in 1733.)

It is this cult of educated neurosis which Gray and others - Woody Allen, Wallace Shawn, Kelsey Grammer - have inherited. And it lends a note of calculated hysteria to . Having his retina photographed is "a Clockwork Orange situation". It's really like torture." Anyone who has been to the opticians recently will find this rather hard to swallow.

Soderbergh seemed to fuel this scepticism by punctuating the film with vox pops from people who had suffered much nastier eye-related experiences. Some of these ocular ordeals would have make a horse sick. A shamefaced woman revealed that she once put superglue in her eyes, thinking that it was eye ointment. Another cheerfully explained that she slept with her eyes open: "They dry out, and then when I blink, my eyelids tear a piece of my eyes off." A man told how his car broke down two and a half hours from the nearest town and in fixing the brakes he accidentally skewered an eye with a piece of wire. "I went to get my pliers, wiped the grease off and started pulling," he said, in the way you or I might describe dealing with a splinter. "I tore a hole in my eye and it drained all the fluid out." He still had to fix the car before he could drive to a doctor, his face smeared with vile jelly.

By including these mini-interviews, Soderbergh, I suspect, was trying to provide a filmic analogue for Gray's contention in Swimming to Cambodia that "stories seem to fly to me and stick". It didn't work. On the page and in the theatre, every borrowed anecdote comes via Gray's editorialising voice: "I was on my way to Chicago from New York City when this guy came up to me and said ..." That kind of thing. But Soderbergh allowed these voices to break through, unmediated, and their testimony has the authentic smell of the charnel-bucket.

In comparison, Gray's tales - even as he is witnessing the psychic surgeon ripping "meatballs" out of the stomachs of his victims - seemed mimsy and inconsequential. They seemed contrived, as if he had only consulted crazy quacks in order to furnish material for this monologue. Gray was making a spectacle of himself, whereas the man with the pliers was just bloody unlucky.

As the film reached its conclusion, I wondered whether Soderbergh had been working to amplify these doubts about his star. Towards the end, we saw one of the interviewees shaking her head in wonder. "I couldn't believe anyone would go to such extremes," she said, reflecting on Gray's Filipino bloodbath. Maybe Soderbergh couldn't quite believe it either.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam