With Stephen Soderbergh on the verge of retiring from filmmaking, one has to wonder how somebody with such an amount of creative freedom could ever feel uninspired or suffocated by the limitations of their chosen medium. He’s the guy who popularized the “one for me, one for them” modus operandi and within it, has seemed to have found his rhythm. In the mid-nineties, Soderbergh faced a similar dilemma in which he overcame an artistic slump by rebuilding himself with two experiments; Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy. While they both fall under the “one for me” category, Gray’s Anatomy is fairly accessible and wholly entertaining as Soderbergh attempts to transform Spalding Gray’s squeamish tale of a rare ocular affliction into something resembling Errol Morris meets Dario Argento.
The story begins as Spalding, having just turned 50, discovers a problem with the sight in one of his eyes. While writing about his Mother’s suicide, he noticed the print on the page was out of focus. After visiting an Ophthalmologist, it’s revealed he has a rare ocular condition called macular pucker in which the vitreous pulls away from the macular (described like ’saran wrap bunching’). This discovery kickstarts a journey in which Gray humorously dissects his experience dealing with medical professionals, and ultimately his attempts to avoid facing the horrible sounding prescribed procedure of ‘macular scraping’. The neurosis kicks in full force as Gray does what many of us do when faced with a medical predicament; he attempts to talk himself out of the treatment by researching the condition independently and assuming there must be an alternate solution. This is particularly relevant in the internet age when the most unsettling and unreliable web diagnoses is a simple Google search away. Having grown up a Christian Scientist, Spalding’s anxiety towards his treatment is partially due to an inexperience with hospitals. He even attempts to contact the church in hopes of some divine intervention but is ultimately refused treatment unless he drops his other doctors and focuses 100% of his faith on the Christian Science solution. This ultimately alienates him even further from his religion. He reaches out to other alternative medicines and procedures, eventually finding seeking out a faith healer. At what point does his journey become less about fixing his eye and more about seeking out stories for his monologue? Perhaps it’s a way of deflecting his health concerns by turning them into a creative endeavour. This self-awareness is evident throughout as Gray uses his condition as an opportunity to ruminate on his own neurosis and bigger questions of religion, medicine and his own mortality.
Gray’s Anatomy isn’t the first time one of Spalding Gray’s monologues has been committed to film. Three previous features — Jonathan Demme’s ‘Swimming to Cambodia’ (1987), Thomas Schlamme’s ‘Terrors of Pleasure’ (1988), and Nick Broomfield’s ‘Monster in a Box’ (1992) — have taken a shot at presenting his work on celluloid. However, Soderbergh’s is the first to do so without the use of a live audience. His approach would place Gray in various staged settings, playing with set design, camera movement, and lighting in order to create an exciting sort of visual accompaniment to the monologue. It seems as though Elliot Davis’ colourful cinematography might have been inspired by the films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, with his use of reds and blues and moving patterns of light. This suggested source of influence is even more likely as that particular wave of cinema — 1960’s Italian gothic and Giallo — can be partially characterized by its preoccupation with imagery of the eye being pierced by sharp objects. In many ways, Gray’s Anatomy is a psychological horror film. The first ten minutes features interviews with real people — shot on infrared film stock, providing a creepy black and white glow — telling graphic stories of incidents involving their eyes. One woman talks about mistaking super glue for eye drops and accidentally fusing her eyelid to her eyeball. Another man talks about pulling a piece of wire from his eye using a pair of pliers and subsequently finishing a brake job on his car before driving to the doctors. It’s an extremely effective, Cronenbergian level of psychological body horror expressed completely through traditional storytelling. Soderbergh unsettles the audience, establishing the darkly comedic tone that carries on throughout the rest of the picture.
Gray’s Anatomy boasts a wonderfully colourful and film-like high definition transfer. Like most of Criterion’s releases, there’s little evidence of digital manipulation here. The soundtrack is presented in a remastered 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix which heightens the few bits of sound design throughout the film. As for extras, the standout feature is probably the raw video footage of Spalding Gray’s eye surgery. The video is referenced in the film, but for one reason or another Soderbergh ultimately decided not to include the footage in the final cut. It’s not recommended viewing for anybody who might get a bit squeamish at the thought of tiny, sharp tools poking at one’s eyeball. Outside of that, there are new interviews with Soderbergh and Gray’s monologue cowriter Renee Shafransky, and a 95 minute videotaped monologue, ‘A Perosnal History of American Theatre’, performed by Gray in 1982. Overall, it’s a solid package of goods supporting a film that exceeded my expectations with Soderberg’s imaginative take on a minimalistic concept. — Jay C.