Gray's Anatomy Review
As well as being an actor, Spalding Gray has a secondary career as a spoken-word performer. In Swimming to Cambodia (filmed in 1987 by Jonathan Demme: recommended) Gray talked about his experiences in Cambodia while filming The Killing Fields. Monster in a Box (1992, director Nick Broomfield: not seen by me) detailed his misadventures while he tried to complete a vast autobiographical novel.
Gray's Anatomy is the third film adaptation of a Gray monologue (co-written by Renee Shafransky, Gray's partner, who directed the stage production and is referred to many times in it). As he passes fifty, Gray starts to worry about his own mortality...then he finds the sight in his left eye is becoming distorted. Learning that he has a “macular pucker” and squeamish at the thought of an operation, Gray seeks out alternative therapies, including mass nude encounters in a sweatbox, a raw-vegetable diet and a trip to the Philippines to meet "The Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons"...
The film was directed by Steven Soderbergh in mid-career slump. Kafka, King of the Hill and Underneath had all failed at the box office, and he had become increasingly disaffected with the Hollywood system. He had worked with Gray before on King of the Hill and this assignment (along with the self-financed bizarre comedy Schizopolis) helped recharge his batteries. To good effect: his next film was Out of Sight. The filmed dramatic monologue is a very specialised area, and possibly best suited to TV. There's a fine line between making a simple record of the stage experience and over-directing to the extent that the material is swamped. Fortunately Soderbergh carries it off: his direction and especially his and DP Elliot Davis's use of lighting doesn't distract us from what Gray's words. Soderbergh intersperses Gray's monologue (in colour) with black and white interview footage with real-life victims of eye trauma. (If you're squeamish about verbal – not visual, fortunately – descriptions of eye injuries, be warned.) The film begins and ends (after the credits) with public information TV footage about how important it is to look after our eyes. But Gray is the star of the show, and his monologue is very witty and a pleasure to listen to.
Fox Lorber's DVD respects the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, though is not anamorphic. That's not as bad as it sounds, as the original materials of Gray's Anatomy are in a better condition than those of other Fox Lorber releases. As this is such a recent film, so they should be. Soderbergh and Davis use a lot of backlighting, which means that Gray's face is in shadow in certain shots, and the detail could have been better. The black and white interview footage is a little grainy, but I suspect that's down to the original - likewise the opening and closing TV material, washed-out and colour-smeared and riddled with artefacts.
Gray's Anatomy has a Dolby Surround track. As the film consists entirely of people talking, you might wonder what the surround speakers are used for. The answer is, the score by Cliff Martinez (a Soderbergh regular), which is sparingly but effectively used. Otherwise this film is pretty much restricted to the centre channel (or the left and right if you play this in Dolby Digital).
There are six chapter stops. Normally this would be ridiculously inadequate, but in fairness there are few natural breaks in Gray's monologue. A greater drawback is the lack of subtitles, considering that the spoken word is the movie here.
Extras are minimal. A full-length commentary would be redundant, but a short interview with Soderbergh, and possibly Davis as well, describing their approach to filming Gray's Anatomy, would have been welcome. What we get is a trailer (also in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic, running 2:15) which is a fair stab at what must have been a hard sell to the uninitiated. There's also a page of production credits, redundant as they are printed on the box, not to mention in the film itself. The only other extras are text pages listing awards won by Gray and Soderbergh, plus their filmographies up to 1998. Soderbergh's omits his other feature documentary, the Yes concert movie 9012 Live.
Gray's Anatomy has a minor place in Soderbergh's filmography, but it does preserve a monologue by one of the leading raconteurs of our time. Fox Lorber's DVD is basic but decent.