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
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?