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Review: Swimming to Cambodia – Spalding Gray’s mesmerising monologue about a messed-up world

BY Mark Reynolds

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Review: Swimming to Cambodia – Spalding Gray’s mesmerising monologue about a messed-up world

A man sits down at a desk with a writing pad, a glass of water, a couple of roll-down maps and a pointer, and talks for an hour and a half about what went through his mind on the set of a film in which he played a minor part.

The film is Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields, and what went through Spalding Gray’s mind whilst fluffing his lines as a US Embassy official in the bigger story about a New York Times journalist and a Cambodian photographer mixed up in Pol Pot’s genocide is vivid, provocative and deeply satisfying.

Gray’s deadpan, hangdog delivery reels from the boredom and oppressive heat of the two-month shoot in Thailand to reflections on the Cambodian massacre and America’s (and the world’s) reckless interference in and indifference to all kinds of devastating upheavals in Southeast Asia. He also plays and parties hard alongside a seemingly indestructible South African cameraman, taking in Bangkok’s notorious nightspots and drifting into dangerous waters off the coast of Phuket.

The resolute idiocy of the West compares unfavourably with the cheerfully permissive and unfazed Buddhist tolerance he encounters along the way, and is personified by a run-in with a missile-happy US Navy redneck who truly wants to bring about the annihilation of America’s perceived enemies: “The Russians are stupid people,” says ‘Jack Daniels’, “they're backwards. You know on their ships, they don't even have electrical intercoms? They still speak through tubes?”

This fills Gray with immediate fondness for Mother Russia, and “the thought of these men like innocent children speaking through empty toilet paper rolls… where you can still hear doubt, confusion, brotherly love, ambivalence, all those human tones, coming through the tube.”

This is fear and loathing with a higher purpose to deftly enlighten a blinkered world. It entertains and stimulates with some cracking one-liners and irresistible outrage about the messiness of modern living. A rollercoaster plunge into a brilliant mind.

Swimming to Cambodia by Jonathan Demme is out now on DVD from Simply Media.

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