*** (A must-see)

Written by Spalding Gray

Directed by Jonathan Demme

With Spalding Gray.

In Plato’s republic Spalding Gray would be among the first asked to pack his bags. The old Greek could not abide poets, whose art he saw as an imitation of a reality that was already a faint shadow of an ideal. He would have had little patience with Gray, whose oral odyssey Swimming to Cambodia recedes from its subject like the reflections of parallel mirrors. Ostensibly an anecdotal monologue on playing a small part in Roland Joffe’s film The Killing Fields, the stage version of Swimming is in effect a performance based on a movie based on a book based on the most horrific catastrophe of modern times, the slaughter of two million Cambodians between 1977 and 1979 by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. What we see is an affable, flannel-shirted guy behind a desk amusing us with freely exfoliating stories, jokes, history, and commentary; what we come to perceive is the human imagination and conscience juggling with irrefutable evidence of human evil.

Jonathan Demme’s direction of the screen version of Swimming, as in his film of a Talking Heads concert, Stop Making Sense, is more a matter of subtractions than additions. He removes, for example, more than half of Gray’s sprawling two-part performance and condenses it into a tautly wound 87-minute unit. And except for a teasing shot at the beginning of the film, he also eliminates the audience. Though spliced together from three live performances, the film shows no convulsed, rapt, or otherwise appreciative faces, nor does it allow any audience laughter, sighs, or applause on the sound track.

Instead Gray is left to his own devices — a Bozo notebook, a glass of water, and a pencil, which he arranges in the beginning with mantralike precision before setting off on his incantatory mental wandering. Paradoxically, the few cinematic devices that Demme allows his subject serve to further isolate him. The occasional flurry of cuts and altered camera angles fragment the dark space of the stage rather than expand it. The rare indulgence in lighting — a tinge of ghoulish green as Gray recalls the odd delights of the Bangkok fleshpots, a flush of red as he notes that five days after the fall of Phnom Penh, a Cambodian prince’s liver was carried through the streets on a stick — suggest not spectacle but contemplation. Discreet sound effects — helicopters, waves, and Laurie Anderson’s music — leak onto the sound track like a distant cooling system or sounds heard by a troubled dreamer. Except for a screen projection of a paradisal beach that glows behind him like a nimbus, and a map of Southeast Asia that peers over his shoulder like a memento mori, Gray is alone in the darkness, a frail light of consciousness adrift in the dark sea of human history.

For history is the medium of Gray’s meanderings; as a poet, his mode would be epic, not lyrical. Bardlike he sings of a dilettantish Odysseus — himself — who delays returning to his household in Krummville, New York, until he has experienced the “perfect moment” that will provide the necessary “closure” for his film experience in Thailand. As funky and freewheeling as Gray’s spiel seems in form and content, it is in fact classically structured — beginning in medias res, it is a hierarchy of tales subordinated to a single master narrative, embellished with such devices as epithets and homeric similes (“a B-52, a great Holiday Inn in the sky,” or “tearing apart children like fresh bread in front of their mothers”). And it spans the range of existence from heaven to hell, inspired and directed by a divine muse.

That muse, of course, is cinema. “When I start speaking,” Gray has remarked about his performing, “I see a film in my mind and I describe that film.” That film, Gray suggests, does not so much disclose reality as it anesthetizes it. During the shooting of The Killing Fields, he mounted over the Thai jungle in a helicopter without qualms, despite his fear of heights, because “I felt like I was in a movie, like I was in Apocalypse Now, and then I realize I was in a movie. They were filming me, and I had no fear, even though the door was wide open and I was looking down. . . . The camera eroticizes space! It protects you like Colgate Gardol.” From this illusory safety, Gray surveyed the Thai countryside blanketed with the smoke of tires burned by the special effects department and littered with Thai extras “covered with chicken giblets and fake blood in 110-degree weather,” and he was inspired with a formula for world peace. “War therapy!” he exclaims. “Every country should make a major war movie every year. It would put a lot of people to work, help them get their rocks off. Make a movie about invading Libya and forget the invasion!” The movies, Gray suggests with puckish irony, are the key to the earthly paradise because they offer the spectacle of disaster and ecstasy without the consequences.

But Gray’s irony is suspect; he suggests no viable alternative to the absurdities he lampoons. The chief flaw in his epic is that it has no viable worldview and so in essence no hero. Gray is a nice guy, a rumpled liberal with a sharp mind, a keen sense of humor, and genuine decency, but he is no visionary. His glimpse into hell is through books and film and is without comprehension; his conception of heaven, his soggy “perfect moment,” is a banal metaphor. He suggests that horror can be countered with absurdity and perhaps dissolved by laughter — but he forgets that the laughter of children accompanied the carnage in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the streets of Phnom Penh, and greets death every day in movie theaters across America.

The rendering of nightmare as black comedy is a peculiarly American art form, and Gray at times achieves the mastery of artists like Mark Twain, William Burroughs, and Hunter Thompson. But unlike these, Gray chooses to invoke not real tragedy, madness, or evil, but their semblance. He swims in a celluloid sea devoid of danger and we admire his capers, but when the film runs out the hellish Cambodian shore still remains.