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Gray's Anatomy
Performed by Spalding Gray
Written by Spalding Gray and Renee Scharansky
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Those of you that have read these reviews over the past two years or so know that there is one thing that really bugs Cranky about the writings of other reviewer; that is the ultimate arrogance of those writers who will tell you what you should like. It is one of the reasons that I make great efforts to see movies with "real" audiences. Yes, there are times that Cranky will go to a private screening of a movie, well in advance of the release date. Sometimes these are for movies so packed with stars and expectations, that the review must be ready before opening day. Sometimes it is because the movie in question features a story, or a performance, or is by a director that Cranky really likes. When that happens, I always warn you in advance. You are warned.

The movie in question is Gray's Anatomy, a monolog by Spalding Gray directed by Steven Soderbergh. A monologue is one person speaking; sometimes to offer an audience insights outside the parameters of a play's normal dialog structure. Sometimes a character delivers a monologue to clue the audience in on what the character is thinking (and the most famous of those begins "To be or not to be"). At its most basic root, a monolog is one person speaking until he or she if finished. Described in black and white, it sounds boring as hell. If badly performed, a monolog is, indeed, boring as hell. The best way to approach the form is to think of it as a story to be told, which is what we have in Gray's Anatomy, a series of stories telling of a man's reaction to the medical news that he could be losing sight in one
eye from a medical malady known as "macula pucker."

Cranky confesses he has a personal affinity for this kind of performance, dating back to my college years when I actually did this kind of thing. That was on stage, where the form works best. It is a difficult process to bring to the screen, for in live performance there is always an audience to provoke emotion in. Soderbergh and Gray filmed this piece on a soundstage, rather than in front of a live audience as it was first performed. This allows various lighting and camera tricks to be used to demarcate one part of the story from another. It allows Soderbergh to insert filmed interviews with other people who have suffered horrendous eye injuries. In fact, you must sit through a good five minutes or so of graphic descriptions of grotesque accidents before Spalding takes the screen. As his recitation progresses, the accident victims you met in the film's prolog reappear to comment on the actions described by Gray. It is a very clever device that prevents the viewer from getting distracted by the constant presence of Gray's visage on screen.

It's a true story. Gray, realizing that one of his eyes refuses to focus, seeks out an opthamologist to determine what's gone wrong. What would be a normal procedure for most of us brings up all sorts of childhood trauma for Gray, raised a Christian Scientist. When diagnosed, Gray discovers that the surgical cure could leave him blind, or worse. It is here, at the start of his tale, that we find humor in the horror. As the tale progresses, Gray's attempts to find a non-surgical solution to his problem stretch into the the absurd. Native American sweat lodges and Phillipine psychic healers come into the picture, as do Orthodox Jews seeking cheap labor.

Cranky is so tempted to give away some of the gags that I'll stop here. Gray's Anatomy is not your average kind of movie. Granted, a one man one story (or more accurately, a series of stories) is not for everyone. If you have never been exposed to the form, the price of a ticket may be more than you'll want to spend to experiment.

This is what I'll suggest. Gray's previous film Swimming To Cambodia should be available on videotape at the larger rental stores. Rent first. It will cost you much less than a full ticket and, if you find that you don't like Gray's work, you won't be out all that much. If you do, you will be well primed for Gray's Anatomy which is, at times, gruesomely funny and humorously poignant.

Which is why we'll dispense with the usual ratings boilerplate that ends all these reviews, and go straight to the dollar rating of . . .


The cost of a weekend rental here in New York. Gray's Anatomy is skedded to open in New York only, so this film may go right to video thereafter. So either try Swimming to Cambodia or this one. Surprise yourself.

Click to buy films starring Spalding Gray
Click to buy films by Steven Soderbergh

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