Slicing Up Eyeballs: Spalding Gray’s “Gray’s Anatomy” (originally published on the Our Lady of Discord Tumblr)
I’ve got a thing for eyes.
They fascinate me and repel me. When I doodle, I tend to draw eyes. Cat’s eyes, the eye of Horus, Sauron’s flaming peepers, eyes in pyramids… more so than any other human body part. Put me in a room, give me a sheet of paper and ask me to draw anything, and its a safe bet I’ll draw an eye. Hell, show me a woman with Cleopatra eye make-up and I’ll go weak in the knees. I even have the aforementioned eye of Horus tattooed on my back.
But eyes freak me out, too. Or to be more specific: the idea of eye injuries freak me the fuck out. The idea of anything poking or cutting into an eyeball gives me serious chills. I have a strong stomach for a lot of things, but I remember almost walking out of a Deus Ex Machina performance art night when they were screening a Jeff Falk video piece that used eye surgery. I wasn’t thinking of walking out because I thought it was immoral or offensive; it was more primal, the feeling of seeing something dangerous that I had to run from immediately. Oddly enough, I’ve never had that feeling watching Dali and Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”. Maybe it’s because the woman getting her eye cut open is so still and calm about it.
If she were squirming or showing visible signs of terror about the whole thing, then that scene would have made me sweat. Case in point: this image from Argento’s “Opera”, which haunted my dreams for months after I saw it.
Which brings me to the movie I watched tonight: Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation of Spalding Gray’s “Gray’s Anatomy” monologue. I’ve had the DVD for a month now, and I just wasn’t able to work up the courage to watch it until tonight. Because of the subject matter. Eye surgery. I was fairly sure that there wasn’t going to be any footage of things being done to eyes, but just the implication of it, the remote possibility of it appearing onscreen was enough to make me keep putting it off.
And I wanted to watch “Gray’s Anatomy”. I’ve only seen one other Spalding Gray monologue, the Jonathan Demme directed “Swimming To Cambodia” (which I had to watch on Youtube, since the DVD is out of print), and I loved it. My friends have been urging me to study Spalding for years. I’m a solo performer, and I’ve done the kind of work he’s done, though not nearly as well as him. For one thing, I don’t have the balls to be as still as he is: it’s amazing to think just how compelling it is to watch a man sit at a table, an open notebook lying in front of him and a glass of water to his side, and listen to him talk for an hour. No bells & whistles. No elaborate movements. Just sitting and talking. And it’s positively riveting.
Tonight I worked up the nerve to watch “Gray’s Anatomy”. I liked it (with some reservations I’ll get to later). The man’s story-telling skills continue to astound me. The way he can mimic someone else for just a few lines, embodying them perfectly. His sly observations, like his horror at waiting in a waiting room and not being able to read magazines cause his vision is shot (“I’m reduced to waiting in the waiting room!”). His great story of walking through a hookers’ corner (“and the prostitutes part like the Red Sea”) and getting picked up by Hasidic men to do cheap yard-work. His vivid descriptions of going to the Philippines to see “The Elvis Presley of psychic surgery” pulling bloody meatballs out of Japanese tourists. All of his stories of exploring methods of alternate healing are great, really: his call to the Christian Scientist (“are you seeing any other doctors?” “Just this Chinese doctor, but it’s nothing serious”); going to a sweat lodge after being prompted by his friend, a “sorcerer’s apprentice” (whom Spalding asks if she’s ever slept with herself while astrally projecting); and visiting a radical nutritionist (“he lives on air, when he can find it”) with a discarded opera box seat installed in his antechamber office. It’s an engaging narrative, with a great hook: will he finally go through with the surgery, or will he keep putting it off and resorting to more and more outlandish treatments?
So what about those reservations, eh? While I enjoyed Spalding’s story and loved his performance, I had some issues with the direction of the film. It often feels like the format of it, the simplicity of it, makes Soderbergh nervous, so he has to resort to all these bells and whistles to make it more “cinematic” and “engaging”. He casts Spalding into darkness in some scenes, or in others he hides him behind shutters or casts him in darkness again and dollies him around in a chair in front of a neighborhood backdrop. While I can see why he would do this (it really does help convey the visual disorientation of Spalding’s condition), it distracts from his story-telling. And there are times where I want to SEE Spalding, I want to see his fantastic facial expressions, and I just can’t, because Soderbergh’s visual experimentation blocks it out. Again, I get why: the other Gray films are more like concert films. The Demme film is great, but visually static: filming him straight all the way through, sitting and talking. In “Gray’s Anatomy” Soderbergh is turning the monologue into a fugue, a dream-state, and there are times where this works well. But there are other times where it feels like he’s upstaging his performer.
There are some visually playful moments that work well. Like the sweat lodge ceremony, with Spalding trying to shout over smoke filling the screen. Some of the many changing backdrops are quite evocative (I love the scene where a vision-testing poster is set on its side, blown-up, and placed outside a window). And there are some shots where it seems like Spalding is talking to himself from opposite ends of a table, like he’s interrogating himself, that work out well.
And then there are the interviews. The film opens with 10 minutes of film testimonials of different folks suffering from eye problems. The 10 minutes feels like 5 minutes too many. Some of the stories are pretty good, though: like the woman whose eyes keep drying up cause she can only sleep WITH HER EYES OPEN; or the lady who mistook Super Glue for her eye-drops. Soderbergh cuts back to these interview subjects a few times during the film to react to Gray’s story. It doesn’t really add much; it’s mostly just them going “faith healing? psychic surgery? i don’t know about that stuff” (though one of the guys being interviewed responds with the hilariously creepy “a sweat lodge sounds interesting, especially if you’re around Indian females sweating”). The interviews are visually arresting, which makes a nice contrast to the Spalding scenes: Spalding is shot in color in obviously artificial spaces; the interview subjects are shot in B&W in outdoor environments (one of the guys being interviewed stands in front of a plume of black smoke that looks like it could be spilling out from Mordor).
It was an enjoyable experience, and I rarely felt twinges of eye-revulsion while watching it (though I was almost hypnotized by how much Gray was blinking in his scenes; I normally never notice other people blinking, but in this film I was super-aware of it). I would definitely want to watch this again soon. I saw that on the special features it includes a video of Spalding’s actual eye surgery… I think I’ll pass on watching that particular film clip.