Ostensibly about the migration from science to faith and then back to science again in light of a rare ocular condition, at its core Gray’s Anatomy is simply a very well-told story. Spalding Gray, here reprising his monologue he originally wrote with Renée Shafransky, carries himself not as an actor trying to wow an audience, but instead as a storyteller trying to relate his experience to you, the anonymous viewer.
There are moments of grandeur, of bellowing voice and sweeping gesture, but these serve more to exaggerate the very bizarre story rather than to attribute some universal significance to his journey trying to find a cure to his eye condition. In one particularly heated moment, where Gray describes the methods of a Filipino “psychic doctor”, the screen behind him depicts the shadow of the doctor working, creating an effect not unlike a campfire tale. This is shot in a way meant to elevate Gray’s story; however, it ends up keeping it in the realm of entertainment rather than of something more significant.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Gray’s Anatomy was filmed in the mid-’90s, during the director’s early period. Released in the same year as this film was the wacky indie satire Schizopolis, which began to set in motion Soderbergh’s career as one of cinema’s most daring auteurs. The same-year release of these films already showed Soderbergh’s ability to wear many hats; while Schizopolis was indicative of his “indie” proclivities, Gray’s Anatomy revealed his skill in helming art films.
The film documents Gray as he unfolds a story that begins with a startling realization. Closing his right eye, he sees that his left eye can hardly distinguish shapes from the world around him; he’s effectively blind. Upon going to the eye doctor, he discovers what he has is a macular pucker, an uncommon eye problem that causes damage to both the macula and the retina. From there, his quest to find a cure ranges from attending a Native American healing ceremony to the aforementioned excursion to the Philippines.
These choices aren’t arbitrary; the pattern of medicine follows an interesting progression. His diagnosis begins at a medical office, but from there he chooses alternative and mystical medicines, only to end up back in a doctor’s office with his concluding surgery. Criterion’s description of the film attempts to give this a philosophical importance: according to the label, this pattern “occasions a meditation on illness and mortality, medicine and metaphysics.” Those themes could easily be read into Gray’s lively delivery, but this doesn’t come across in any obvious way. The thrill of Gray’s Anatomy comes in the method of storytelling, not in the broad, overarching themes that may exist. What may seem to some as a grand statement is, in reality, a highly engaging tale.
But despite the fact that the film bears his name, Gray’s Anatomy says a lot more about Soderbergh than about Gray. What makes this an intriguing experiment, no doubt the reason Criterion was drawn to it in the first place, is Soderbergh’s affectionate direction. This could have been staged as a fairly straightforward theatrical monologue, more in line with previous film adaptations of Gray’s monologues (namely the 1987 Jonathan Demme-helmed Swimming to Cambodia), but Soderbergh goes through great lengths to bring out the energy in Gray’s performance.
The film is best described as shot in a “moving room;” the nature of the room changes based on the place Gray is in the story. During one part of the film, the walls appear as a nature scene. While the Native American healing ceremony is happening, all lights are shut off as plumes of smoke radiate up to Gray’s face, brought right up next to Soderbergh’s inquisitive camera. Most memorable is the Filipino psychic doctor scene, wherein Soderbergh depicts the doctor’s wild, flailing movements as a silhouette behind a red wall.
Soderbergh’s direction is both compassionate and inquisitive; he’s fascinated by Gray’s story, and he sees his theatricality not as a means of overexaggerating the odds and ends of the story, but as clues into Gray himself. For Soderbergh, the macular pucker is a way to cut into who Gray really is. Unfortunately, most of the time his directorial sleight-of-hand comes off not as insightful, but rather as tastefully done additions to Gray’s storytelling.
Unfortunately, his direction undercuts the film in one major way, as evidenced by the inclusion of several “on-the-street” interviews with various people who have suffered from eye conditions. These interviews open the film, which sets a somewhat intriguing stage for Gray’s monologue; shot in stark infrared film, these stories range from the darkly humorous (a woman accidentally putting superglue in her eyes instead of eyedrops) to terrifying (a man who got a sliver of steel stuck in his eye).
At the beginning these shots seem to fit; however, throughout Gray’s monologue, these interviewees pop back up, serving as something of a counterpoint to Gray’s choices. For example, after finishing the bit about the psychic doctor, these people are asked if they would have undergone the measure, as well. These additions are largely pointless; and, as revealed in the revealing interview Criterion did with Soderbergh, the director admitted that the main reason for including these interviews was to fill out the time shortage he noticed after completing Gray’s monologue. Though artfully shot, these interviews feel just like what they are: additions. They don’t necessarily detract from the experience, but they do derail some of the momentum that builds in the latter parts of the monologue.
Given Soderbergh’s skill behind the camera, it makes sense that Gray’s Anatomy, despite his intentions, ends up becoming more about his vision as a director than about Gray’s ocular conundrum. This film is but one angle of a parallax view of Spalding Gray; as a man of the theatre, he wore many hats, sometimes within the same film or performance. Here he ranges from crazed raconteur to quietly ponderous, all amplified by Soderbergh’s technique. Soderbergh elevates this quirky story to some level of art, though it isn’t a very high one. We see Spalding Grey as Steven Soderbergh sees him.
As always, the folks of Criterion have pulled out all the stops in the making of the DVD release. The sleeve art and accompanying booklet are gorgeous, and the essay describing the film is enlightening. The discs, meanwhile, are likewise packed. The first disc contains two interviews, one with Soderbergh and the other with Shafransky. The former is the most helpful in terms of understanding the film; since this is uniquely Soderberghian, it’s his words that are most needed in explaining the many eccentricities present. The most bizarre of the bonus features comes in “Swimming to the Macula”, a 16-minute, silent video of Gray’s surgery. Unless one is knowledgeable on the intricacies of eye surgery, the video will be confusing due to lack of narrative.
The final feature, taking up the entirety of the second disc, is “A Personal History of the American Theatre”, another one of Gray’s monologues. This one is more humorous than Gray’s Anatomy, although its spare style and laughing audience is likely to leave one pining for Soderbergh’s artistic flourish. Suffice it to say that for avowed fans of either Soderbergh or Gray, this package is the real deal. Though relative to the former’s later work this is a minor piece, it’s nonetheless stunningly shot, which is captured perfectly by Criterion’s digital restoration.
Gray’s Anatomy is no masterpiece. It’s not a grand artistic statement. But it’s a pretty good story, as told by a master of the craft.