Television: Facts that spoilt the fiction

Steven Soderberg was a poor choice of director for Spalding Gray
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The Independent Culture
Gray's Anatomy


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.