Spalding Gray rambles through the rubble of his life

August 14, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There it sits, smug and hungry, sucking the energy from the room and the joy from your life. It is the half-written book, a pile of crummy, mildewy pages, corpulent with over-ripened language, undeveloped ideas and characters who lay as still and pie-eyed as Lenin under glass. It's the book that doesn't want to be written, much less published, that just sits there like a gallstone in the middle of your life.

The half-written book is the "Monster in a Box" that is the center of Spalding Gray's new monologue, as recorded on film by Nick Broomfield and opening today for two days at the Charles. All those who remember the last trip down agony lane with Gray -- "Swimming to Cambodia" -- ought to get themselves to the theater and settle down for the world according to Spal.

Turning a one-man stage performance into a true movie may be the highest challenge in all film. Broomfield, in this respect, has a little less success than Jonathan Demme, who directed "Swimming" and, if memory serves, was much more restrained. He trusted both Gray and his language, and his manipulation of the camera was much more astute. One never knew it was a movie; rather, Gray's thorny, ironic, self-deprecating and hysterical presence seemed to explode off the screen, like a hologram.

Broomfield, who made perhaps the most exquisitely self-conscious movie of all time ("Driving Me Crazy," which was the inside story of its own existence), does best when he's out of ideas and just lets Spalding talk. Otherwise, he's entirely too insistent, frequently hamming up the camera work and the editing, dubbing in overbearing sound effects, in a vain effort to punch it up. Memo to Nick Broomfield: It was already punched up.

Still, "Monster in a Box" is the best movie ever made about not writing a book. Gray had signed a contract with Knopf for a novel based loosely on the suicide of his mother while he was on vacation in Mexico in his 20s.

But for a good six years, in the immediate aftermath of the recondite but nevertheless bracing "Swimming to Cambodia" triumph, the damned book leached the joy out of Gray's existence, and he uses its bitter presence as the organizing principle on which to construct what is essentially a ramble through the rubble of his own life as he struggles to beat his massive case of writer's block.

The adventures are extraordinary: There was his courtship by the powerful but utterly shallow Hollywood power-agency CAA, or the earthquake that left him gibbering for a week, or his ordeal by humiliation at the Moscow Film Festival, where "Swimming to Cambodia" was screened without benefit of an adequate translation and the audience stormed out in disgust. He has a bout of AIDS hysteria; he is assaulted by the New York critics for a disastrous spin as the stage manager in a production of "Our Town," and he flubs his way through an arts grant in L.A. which saw him "interviewing" real people about their lives.

Who is Spalding Gray? Every extended family has one: He's the slightly dubious bachelor uncle or the mysterious cousin with unknown employment but a surprising affluence, who sleeps late and never reports to anybody. He's got high, fine features, a slight lisp, a corona of wild gray hair, a ruddy glow from either skiing or vodka (or possibly skiing in vodka) and the utter presence and self-confidence of a pimp. He knows he's interesting and to spend an hour in his presence is its own reward.

The novel has just been published, by the way, under the title "Impossible Vacation"; I will not be reading it, as life is too dang short.

'Monster in a Box'

Starring Spalding Gray.

Directed by Nick Broomfield.

Released by Fineline.

Unrated.

***

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