Gray’s Anatomy: Criterion Collection
June 26, 2012
Gray’s Anatomy (1997) chronicles storyteller Spalding Gray’s search for the perfect cure for an eye problem. In keeping with his habit of performing one-man shows, this one is the similar only given cinematic flourishes by director Steven Soderbergh. This includes various scenes shot in black and white inserted throughout the film. They consist of people recounting their own eye problems in very compelling and often graphic ways where they were almost blinded.
Gray recounts a time when he was working on a novel when one day one of his eyes went out of focus. Naturally, he went to a specialist who told him he had a problem with the retina of his left eye. After undergoing a series of tests he was told what was wrong – an unusual ailment known as macular pucker. The center of the retina no longer lay flat. He didn’t get a good vibe from the first expert and decided to get a second opinion, and then a third, and so on. Gray was given all kinds of possible solutions and recounts them in fascinating detail.
Among the many digressions and asides, as his trademark, Gray talks about how his religious upbringing as a Christian Scientist made him leery of most doctors. So, he tries a few alternatives, like consulting with a Christian Scientist and his therapist but with little success. His trademark sardonic humor shines in bits like when he recounts a funny story about being mistaken for a street hustler and is picked up by a carload of Hassidic Jews. Gray looks into all sorts of alternatives in order to avoid having a microscopic surgical procedure. He even goes to a Native American sweat lodge. Each one of these options doesn’t help his eye problem but does give him a series of minor epiphanies, which he recounts. Like most of us, Gray would like to avoid surgery if possible. Unlike most of us, he goes to great lengths to find another solution but each one ends at a dead end.
Unlike his previous films, Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Monster in a Box (1991), which were ostensibly live concert films shot in front of an audience, with Gray’s Anatomy, Soderbergh takes on the stylish aspects of Gray’s headspace, which involves utilizing shadowy lighting, saturated color-dominated scenes and odd camera angles.
Gray’s Anatomy is an intriguing cinematic experiment for Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has always been interested in doing something different, trying to push the boundaries of convention, whether it is a studio film like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or an independent film like Che (2008). He has dabbled in numerous genres and this film allows the filmmaker to tackle performance art and he does his best to make a 79-minute monologue visually compelling, complementing Gray’s storytelling abilities. The end result is the most visually adventurous of all of Gray’s films.
The first disc features an interview with Steven Soderbergh. He puts Gray’s Anatomy in the context of his career at the time. He also recounts meeting Gray for the first time and casting him in King of the Hill (1993). Naturally, Soderbergh talks about the visual aesthetic of the film and how he chose what to keep in and what to take out. He praises Gray’s ability to adapt to the stylized way of the film and being able to do chunks of his monologue out of sequence.
Frequent collaborator Renee Shafransky talks about her work with Gray over the years. She recounts meeting him in 1979 and how they started working together on Swimming to Cambodia. She acted as a producer and an editor on it and subsequent films. She marvels at Gray’s oratory skills and provides fascinating insight his working methods.
“Swimming to Macula” features 16 minutes of Gray’s actual eye surgery and is not terribly exciting unless you’re into that kinda thing.
Also included is the theatrical trailer.
The second disc features “A Personal History of the American Theater,” which was one of Gray’s earlier monologues that he first presented on November 7, 1980 in New York City. This version was performed in 1982 as part of a retrospective and runs just over 90 minutes. He talks about the 40 plays he was involved with from 1960 to 1970. He offers humorous anecdotes about each one with some samples of his lines. For fans of the storyteller this film is another fantastic monologue to enjoy.