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Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: Monster in a Box (1992)

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Friday, Jan 5, 2007


Spalding Gray was more than just a monologist. He was a capturer of moments, a filterer of the fallacies of man, turning insecurity, insanity and ineffectualness into an artform. Using that long lost human gift of communication to sell his sensibility, he worked in autobiographical shades, hoping his well-rehearsed screeds would lead individuals into some manner of performance epiphany. Though many may have known him from his minor turns in motion pictures, it was Swimming to Cambodia, and that story’s endless search for a perfect moment, that finally won him real recognition. That film, by live concert juggernaut Jonathan Demme, dealt with Gray’s growing discontent with life, his small role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, and a momentous swim in the Indian Ocean which resulted in a kind of karmic closure.


How ironic it is then that, nearly three years ago, the man took his life by throwing himself in the East River. New York was where he felt the most comfortable, the most escaped from his haunted New England past. The issues surrounding his upbringing (distant father, cracked Christian Scientist mother) and his late in life turn toward fatherhood (longtime companion and first wife Renée Shafransky was out, new spouse Kathleen and their two kids were in) have been dissected before. In his CD only offering, It’s a Slippery Slope, Gray used the noted philosophical metaphor to discuss both happiness and depression. Any person, he believes, poised on the precipice of both emotions, can easily see himself or herself sliding down, landing in an arena of tremendous joy, or endless torment.


If Cambodia was prophetic, then Monster in a Box is a last gasp warning. Genial in its tone but devastating in the problems it presents, Gray’s fierce follow-up to his sudden celebrity is at once a denouncement of such stardom, and a strangled attempt at dealing with his mother’s emotional suicide. Framed around the writing of Gray’s only novel, the eerily reflective Impossible Vacation, the process reveals a man in desperate inner pain, projecting his mental unease on everything and anything around him. As we follow his adventures at a writer’s colony, a bungalow in Beverly Hills (complete with earthquake), trips to Nicaragua and Russia, and a stint as the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town, we hear someone slowly coming apart at the seams. Every adventure is attached to a disaster, all progress measured against endless internal angst.


Perhaps the best example of this collaboration of contradictions comes when Gray spends Thanksgiving in Manhattan. Ecstatic to be away from LA’s combination of cars and culture shock, he attends a screening of Cher’s Moonstruck. Prior to the event, his girlfriend Renee shocks him with the news that the rash she has on her inner thigh (something Gray describes as “radioactive blue shingles”) is sometimes considered a sign of AIDS. What follows is a perplexing combination of psychosomatic insanity (Gray gets incredibly sweaty feet, dry mouth, and tends to bark like a dog) and deliciously vile descriptions of the stage door slut who may have given him the disease. On the one hand, he celebrates the sexual score. On the other, he worries about the price he must pay.


Almost all of Gray’s monologues deal with mortality. One of his first was entitled Sex and Death to the Age 14. Gray’s Anatomy, the film that followed Monster, dealt with an eye condition and his investigation of alternative medicines. To call him hypochondriacal would be the cup of kindness. Gray is goofy on human physicality, awash in worries that no normal person places on themselves. The threat doesn’t have to be interior either. During Monster‘s fact finding tour of Central America (a trip as part of a potential film script deal for Columbia), he discovers that his roommate, a tightly wound pedantics major from Berkeley, is so paranoid that he’s threatening the groups security. Hoping to keep him out of a Nicaraguan asylum, Gray and the gang try to comfort him. Unfortunately, all our hero can do is make the man’s fears all the more fathomable (“No, I’m not part of the CIA…I think…”).


Interspersed throughout these travails are snippets of Vacation, an incredibly insular book that basically uses wild eccentricities, gay sex, and a few passages of sweeping literary majesty to mask the fact that Gray never forgave his loveable loon of a mother for taking her own life. The metaphor he uses – the notion of getting away and spending time in the leisurely pursuit of relaxation – is rather obvious, and its one he employs in Monster as well. The numerous projects he takes on post-Cambodia (an HBO special on UFO abductees, a year in residence at a LA theater interviewing people, etc.) become excuses, ways of not dealing with his mom’s decades-old decision. Even when he begins therapy with a strict Freudian shrink in California, his sessions are more an avoidance than an admission. Gray even states that Vacation was a way of working out his Oedipal issues. Sadly, it seems like it didn’t work.


Luckily, there is more to Monster in a Box than mental insights into a frayed and fractured soul. One of the reasons so many grieve for Gray is that, as a performer, he remains remarkable. His monologues are funny, full of snide little swipes at inanity and the impracticalities of modern life. When his LA assistant refuses to leave her car to help locate some potential interview subjects, Gray condemns her for having a “35 mph mentality” (nothing traveling below that speed registers on her retina). Similarly, a chance meeting with other Americans while in Russia results in the celebrity being booted from the Hermitage. The crime? Impersonating royalty. Like a less reference oriented Woody Allen, Gray mixed metropolitan life with personal phobias to enter a realm of vicarious victimization. And we simply sit back and laugh along.


Revisiting this movie today, some 14-plus years after its release (Image Entertainment deserves kudos for finally bringing it on everyone’s favorite digital domain), one is struck by how poignant and hopeful the ending is. As he describes his dream job – starring in Our Town – one senses a sort of finality for Gray. Even as he explores his moments of resignation and resolve, we can actually hear him exhale, subconsciously giving up a little of the ground the past has stolen from him. It’s just too bad that elements that most people find centering – family, children, success – didn’t really help this talented yet troubled man. As the middle sequence in a trilogy of trauma, Monster in a Box is Spalding Gray’s masterwork. It begs to be experienced, not only for what it says about this fine, fallen artist, but about life in general. 



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of Monster in a Box was released on 28 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here

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