SWIMMING TO Cambodia is as much about swimming as My Dinner With Andre was about food. It is instead about Cambodia, which screenwriter Spalding Gray says is beyond his imagination yet succeeds in vividly describing.
Swimming To Cambodia
Directed by Jonathan Demme
At the USA Nickelodeon at Harvard Square
Gray's story is truly funny in parts, truly horrifying in others. On the surface, it concerns Gray's experiences while filming The Killing Fields, in which he had a small role as an American ambassador's aide. However, as his story of the US bombing of Cambodia in April 1975 unfolds, it becomes apparent that Gray's real message is that "an invisible cloud of evils surrounds the earth and lands anywhere...even America."
The narrative shifts rapidly from Gray's thoughts on the bombings, to opinions of strangers he meets in trains, to memories of his fun on the beaches of the Indian Ocean.
Sounds like a great story with fast-paced action and quick scene changes, right? Wrong--Swimming to Cambodia is simply a monologue, filmed before a concert audience. However, Gray's mesmerizing story and Jonathan Demme's brilliant use of lighting and sound make the viewers forget that it is simply watching a man speak. The audience becomes wrapped up in the story as though it were a film with a Plot, characters and scenes.
When Gray describes the destruction of 1975, the audience can practically see the jungle villages because sounds of crickets and helicopters fill the background, while green lights and skewed camera angles make Gray appear to be in the scene he is talking about. Yet when he leaves his story to stare hauntingly into the camera and announce that is "evil" happened to America, the audience is snapped violently back to the realization that Gray is telling the story, not acting it out.
But his history of the bombing is only half of this stream-of-consciousness monologue. Gray also alternates light and funny descriptions of friends with darkly hilarious tales, for instance, he tells of the Thai prostitutes who have numbers instead to names and of Jack Daniels, the US trooper who, while high on blue-flake cocaine, guards the "button" which will shower nuclear destruction on Moscow.
THROUGHOUT SWIMMING, Gray fires attack after attack at America and its values, He sarcastically describes the good neighbors he has in the murderous gangsters upstairs. He compares his suburb, Krumville, to New York City, which he had moved to because he "always wanted to live on a small island somewhere between the US and Europe." He describes his expectation of "the perfect high" on fantastic Indian marijuana and then tells us it made him sick, anxious and self-destructive.
Gray also mocks the US administration, both lightly and with dark severity. He tells us that the CIA put Lon Nol in power in Cambodia although "no one knew anything about Lon Nol except that Lon Nol spelled background is still Lon Nol." And he compares Pol Pot to Hitler, saying the reason the US continued to support Pol Pot is because no Americans speak Khmer and therefore don't care about the genocide which occured for five years in Cambodia.
Still mocking the US, Gray wryly announces, "I found out only two years ago that we are not living in a democracy." He goes on to convince us that we are instead living in a humorous version of hell, with madmen running the country and cocaine freaks controlling the keys to nuclear destruction.
THE KEY to the success of Swimming to Cambodia is Gray. His rapid-fire speech, expressive voice and fantastic facial expressions successfully convey his incredulity at the world around him. And the interplay among Gray's script, five short clips from The Killing Fields, and Laurie Anderson's music make the film a wonderful journey through the mind of a comic who is horrified by his world. The bombing of Cambodia is a stark example of what is wrong with his country, but his sarcastic self-deprecations and caricatures of others express his dismay at his society in general.
Swimming to Cambodia is brilliant and entertaining and should definitely be seen. Its only drawback is that, as Gray says, "it's all true except the part about the banana."