of self into the public performance of these characters, and even her most avid and friendly fans had better be satisfied with that. She has disappeared into her work, and it is by her work alone that she wishes to be judged. It’s an honorable and understandable position; so then why all the fuss over this careful and really quite flattering documentary of her return to stardom, after the disappointing failure of her misconceived vehicle with John Travolta, Moment by Moment? Hard to tell, although litigation has its own momentum, but Tomlin is clearly such a perfectionist she supervises the eyebrows on her billboards that the sudden realization that the film was not precisely what she expected must have determined her panicky and entirely unnecessary over-reaction. She has done herself no credit by attempting to suppress the film, and Bloomfield and Churchill have been forced to distribute it themselves. To judge from early reviews and ticket sales, Lily Tomlin is doing surprisingly well. Fans of Tomlin should certainly be pleased; others may be puzzled by the consternation. Satiric comedians, as George Carlin once pointed out, are the closest thing we have to the court “fools” who once served their royal masters by mocking them, telling unpalatable truths in ingratiating fashion. Over time they can, like Bob Hope and many others, accommodate themselves to the princes who pay their wages, and begin to see the world entirely through those imperious eyes; on the other hand, if they stray too far from received opinion, they risk losing all access to the audience by whom they live. Lily Tomlin is among the very few honorable performers who have thus far succeeded in treading the thin line between accommodation and oblivion. This film pays homage to her success, but makes one wonder whether she had to disappear entirely into her performing self in order to achieve it. OVIEGOERS BEST KNOW Spalding Gray as a civic leader in the imaginary town of Virgil, Texas, featured in David Byrne’s pop-surreal homage to supermarket tabloids, True Stories. He presides over a bizarrely formal family dinner held for Byrne’s benefit, using the eerily neon-lit food arrangement to illustrate an impromptu lecture on the future of capitalism. An earlier, even more ephemeral part as an aide to the American Ambassador to Cambodia, in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, has now led to his own film: the Jonathan Demme-directed live-performance-film of Gray’s “monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, released in early April. Although he is only recently familiar to film audiences, Gray has been involved in the New York experimental theater scene for 20 years, most notably with the Wooster Group, where he began developing the monologues which have become his forte. Initially improvised and then memorized remembrances, they are performed solo and virtually without props, and have over the years recounted, piece by piece and thematically rather than chronologically, much of Gray’s own life. Collected in these two books, they are a curious amalgam of artistic experiment, self-therapy, contemporary history, new journalism, and stand-up comedy. Gray calls himself a “poetic journalist,” implying a kind of daily record reconsidered and reflected through the emotions of personal memory. Neither news nor lyric, the “monologues” are sui generis, one man’s acting-out of his own tuberide down the historical riverbed. Though published earlier in book form, Swimming to Cambodia is the most recent monologue and the most serious in intent. Centered upon Gray’s experiences in Thailand during the filming of The Killing Fields, it is Gray’s attempt to come to some sort of personal terms with the Cambodian holocaust, against hopeless odds: “I titled this work SEX AND DEATH TO THE AGE 14 By Spalding Gray Viking, 1986 SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA By Spalding Gray Theater Communications Group, 1985 Swimming to Cambodia when I realized that to try to imagine what went on in that country during the gruesome period from 1966 to the present would be a task equal to swimming there from New York. Still, in spite of how horrible it seems to allow entire nations to be wiped out, I opted for tolerance, my bottom line, humor. If ever I thought that God could understand American, I would pray and the prayer would go, ‘Dear God, please, please let us keep our sense of humor.’ I still understand and love America, precisely for its sense of humor.” The poignant ambivalence of these introductory remarks catches pretty well the tone of Gray’s work. In all the monologues, he is a somewhat passive, Candide-like figure who recounts the ordinary details of his life partly in astonishment and partly in bemusement. The special circumstances of “Cambodia” add a harder edge of Voltairean irony ‘to the background of his personal tale. For it is not about Cambodia and modern history directly, but rather about the production of a movie about Cambodia, by which an absurd historical wheel comes full circle: the American bombardment of Cambodia produces the Khmer Rouge, who drive the Americans out and then wage horrible war upon their own people; an American reporter \(Sydney film is made of that story, using thousands of Cambodian and Thai extras to recreate the literal war, and said film enjoys enormous success in the Western countries responsible for the war in the first place. This is life become art on a grand and grotesque scale, and Gray captures well the thoroughly bizarre nature of the whole business. I was looking up the Chao Phraya River and I saw, my God, how much area the film controlled! Twenty square miles of Thai jungle, all the way up the river, there were Thai peasants throwing more rubber tires on the fire to make black smoke, to make it look like war, and I thought, of course! WAR THERAPY. 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. And when you land in that jungle you don’t have to Method-act. When those helicopter blades are whirring overhead, you shout to be heard. You don’t have to Method-act when you look down and see a Thai peasant covered with chicken giblets and fake blood in 110-degree Spalding Gray, ‘Poetic Journalist’ By Michael King 20 MAY 1, 1987.
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