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Scraping the Macula

Spalding Gray
An Eye for an I: Spalding Gray worries about his sight and insight.

Photo by Bait and Switch, Inc.

Illness brings new depth to Spalding Gray's monologue

By Richard von Busack

SELF-CENTERED, CRANKY, CYNICAL and yet astoundingly credulous--and now half-blind in one eye. In Gray's Anatomy, Spalding Gray's newest monologue, the actor recalls running a gantlet of callous Western doctors and New Age quacks as he searched for a cure for his "macula pucker," a retinal condition that's idiopathic (translation: "We don't know where this came from"). The actor was unable to accept his ophthalmologist's advice that he needed surgery, so he turned for solace to his upbringing as a Christian Scientist and to his years of Freudian analysis--a potent combination. The actor supposes that perhaps having a career of sitting at a desk saying "I,I,I,I" had somehow left him morally open to eye illness. Evolved friends were ready to back him up in this supposition. (Gray imitates their tender, understanding voices: "What is it that you don't want to see?")

Gray's Anatomy provides even more horselaughs than an issue of Common Ground. The actor/monologist visited several outposts of alternative healing, claiming, "I want magic and miracles. I don't want medicine!" He attended a Native American sweat lodge in Minnesota, ceremonially calling on his ancestors before entering--they were all Indian killers, he remembers. After the spirits failed to deliver a cure, Gray visited Nutley, New Jersey's Dr. Ron Axe, OD, FFAO, FASS, etc., a "top nutritional ophthalmologist" who advised his patient that a diet of raw vegetables would cure him. (The resulting farts almost propelled Gray into divorce court.) At last, Gray went to a Filipino psychic surgeon operating out of what used to be the Tip Top disco in Manila. The monologist expected to see the mountebank surgeon palming bloody, rotten meat, but he did not expect the speed of the operation. The "doctor" marched in squads of underwear-clad patients who popped onto the saran wrap­covered beds, "got healed" and jumped up to make way for the next sucker.

Director Steven Soderbergh succeeds in defeating the problems of static visuals in recording a Gray monologue. He introduces Gray's Anatomy with found footage from a classroom eye-care movie of the 1950s and breaks up the story with interviews with people who suffered spectacular eye accidents that almost blinded them. These interviews keep the sound of Gray's voice from becoming too enclosing. Soderbergh mounts Gray on a rotating platform to get multiple angles of the actor, and uses computer toasting to fill a window behind Gray's customary brick-wall background. Overlapping sound and sharp editing keep the motifs and the moods fresh--there isn't a claustrophobic minute in the film.

Gray's Anatomy is easily Gray's best work since Swimming to Cambodia. Like so many other professionals, Gray was getting a little boring even as he was hitting a professional stride. His career was going well but not as much seemed to be happening to him lately. Illness may not necessarily bring out nobility in a sufferer--despite what the movies beg us to believe--but it certainly brings drama to their lives. One other thing: Gray has improved as an actor. He has better concentration, better control, better timing and better rhythm than I've seen him sustain in the past. Time improves an artist's methods even as it decays his body.

Gray's Anatomy (Unrated; 80 min.), directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by and starring Spalding Gray.

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