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Gray’s Anatomy

The third Spalding Gray performance piece to be filmed, after "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Monster in a Box," "Gray's Anatomy" is the most elaborately cinematic of the trio, with lots of visual inventiveness brought to the monologist's table by director Steven Soderbergh.

With:
Performed by: Spalding Gray.

The third Spalding Gray performance piece to be filmed, after “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Monster in a Box,” “Gray’s Anatomy” is the most elaborately cinematic of the trio, with lots of visual inventiveness brought to the monologist’s table by director Steven Soderbergh. Production reps the first non-docu feature produced by the Independent Film Channel, where it is due to air in a year’s time. In the interim, pic should have a measure of success on the specialized theatrical circuit.

The film is something of a fancy-dress version of the stage work Gray began performing in 1993. An account of an eye problem that sent the artist on a wild international hunt for alternative remedies before facing up to surgery, the material is perhaps marginally less funny than that in the previous two Gray monologues preserved for posterity, which were directed by Jonathan Demme and Nick Broomfield, respectively.

To introduce and supplement the text, on which Gray collaborated with Renee Shafransky, Soderbergh has lensed some creepy, vaguely Lynchian black-and-white interviews with individuals who have suffered some sort of optical difficulties, and the detailed testimonies of people who have wound up with Super-Glue or metal rods in their eyes get the film off to a squirmingly gruesome start.

Seated at a simple desk and with just a mike, lamp and glass of water at hand , the 50-ish Gray, sporting long gray hair and his Rhode Island accent, launches into his neurotic narrative of medical procrastination after the discovery of distorted vision in his left eye. The tale takes him through a succession of New York doctors, who basically agree that he must undergo a procedure on his eyeball known as “scraping” or, less alarmingly, “peeling.”

Having been raised a Christian Scientist, Gray initially demurs on religious grounds and begins searching for methods of natural healing that might enable him to escape the knife. There’s the Native American Sweat Ceremony involving mass nude encounters in a sweat box; a debilitating raw vegetarian diet; and, most memorably, a trip to the Philippinesto try out “the Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons,” who specializes in applying his hands, mostly to Japanese patients, and pulling out bloody messes of entrails.

Removing a live audience from the equation, Soderbergh becomes a bold participant in the storytelling. The backdrop keeps changing, from a brick wall to drapes, windows and assorted landscapes. The lighting is in constant flux, often punctuating the text on cue. The camera also always is on the prowl, circling the speaker and covering him from every angle, so that, for the most part, he is not looking directly at the viewer.

Clearly, production designer Adele Plauche and cinematographer Elliot Davis have played major hands in the colorful, inventive look of the picture, which is impressive on the bigscreen but should play very well on the tube, its ultimate destination.

Gray, who had a role in Soderbergh’s 1993 feature “King of the Hill,” is very much on top of his game delivering the piece, and once again can count himself fortunate to have collaborated with a top-flight talent in transferring one of his monologues to film. Pic was shot in 10 days in late January in Baton Rouge, La.

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Gray's Anatomy

Production: An Independent Film Channel production in association with Bait and Switch Inc. and BBC Films. Produced by John Hardy. Executive producers, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, Kathleen Russo. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay, Spalding Gray, Renee Shafransky, based on their performance piece.

Crew: Camera (color), Elliot Davis; editor, Susan Littenberg; music, Cliff Martinez; production design, Adele Plauche; set decoration, Cynthia Wigginton; sound (DTS), Paul Ledford. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 9, 1996. Running time: 80 MIN.

With: Performed by: Spalding Gray.

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