Swimming To Cambodia

Many years ago, discouraged by the need to go to school the next day, and unable to read, let alone sleep, I spent much of the night flicking through the television channels on the second-hand TV in my bedroom desperate for something to watch, anything to distract me from the black moods which characterized much of my teenage years. If I were to sum up that entire decade of my life in one word it would be “anger“. Looking back now I find it hard to believe just how angry I was. At what, you may ask? Why, everything! Most of all myself, I think. For the longest time, and for many reasons, I despised myself with a passion, to the point that I was hurting myself more than those who had previously hurt me. However in my mind I remember this particular night as one of rare stillness, of inner storms made calm, after I came upon a show on the television featuring a lone man, sitting at a desk on a stage, talking into a camera, recounting his adventures while filming a movie in Southeast Asia. The individual was Spalding Gray, a then forty-six year old jobbing actor, and the programme was the 1987 film-version of his one-man stage show, “Swimming to Cambodia“, directed by Jonathan Demme. Delivered in monologue form, it recounted his darkly comic experiences while starring in a minor role as a diplomatic aide in the award-winning 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields“, a story set against the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the late 1970s. Think Islamic State without the Islam (or American opposition).

It was compulsive watching, for me at least, even if I was unfamiliar with much of the horrific background which loomed like a dark cloud behind the drama and comedy inherent in his stories. The film effected me profoundly and I never forgot it. Indeed I subsequently watched several more of Spalding Grey’s monologues, recorded for TV and DVD, though unfortunately I never got to see him perform his shows in person. In January of 2004 the sixty-two year old actor disappeared from his home in New York City where he lived with his wife, Kathleen Russo. Two months later his body was pulled from the East River, with a verdict of suicide returned by the city’s Chief Medical Examiner some time later. According to press reports he was still living with the physical and psychological trauma he had suffered following a 2001 car accident in County Meath, during one of several visits to Ireland. His later interview with the obnoxious Joe Duffy on RTÉ Radio 1 is enough to make one cringe. I also discovered from the media that his mother, Margaret Elizabeth Horton, had killed herself when he was in his mid-twenties.

It seems that my attraction to his haunted works was a case of, as an old girlfriend of mine once said, like recognising like. His seminal show, “Swimming to Cambodia”, was recently uploaded by a user to YouTube so for those of you who feel like dipping your toe into some very sombre – if real – humour, you can watch it through this link here, or below. The New Yorker magazine has a lengthy article examining the period before his death.

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One comment

  1. Absolutely brilliant piece. I too stumbled upon it, late one night on HBO in the early 90s. The stark juxtaposition of the depths of horror of the killing fields and comedic Thai prostitute tricks. He certainly had a way of vividly drawing contrasts.

    You haven’t watched Hal Hartley movies by any chance?

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