Thoughts: Gray’s Anatomy (1997, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

grays-anatomy-movie-poster-1996-1020200884Steven Soderbergh is the only director whose work I will see no matter what the subject matter, no matter what the reviews are, and, simply, no matter what. Because as rough as the finished product might be, I’m certain to be wowed by some aspect of it. Even when THE GOOD GERMAN started slowly coming apart at the seams, it was amazing to watch Soderbergh stick to the restrictions of ’30s and ’40s cinema and to watch Tobey Maguire play against type.

I’ve been on a quest lately to acquire all of Soderbergh’s work on Blu-ray, inspired by his amazing directorial/editorial/cinematographic efforts on The Knick and reading this amazing extensive treatise on his career via Grantland. So far, it’s been pretty easy to do so considering how many of his films were made for major studios that shuffled his work into the discount bin (I snagged OCEAN’S THIRTEEN, SIDE EFFECTS, CONTAGION, and MAGIC MIKE in one fell swoop for a mere $20). And when Best Buy decided to mark down all their Criterion discs, that was my chance to fill in some further holes by grabbing GRAY’S ANATOMY and his other Spalding Gray-centric effort, 2010’s AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE.

My family has been on board with the work of the late actor and writer for decades now, spurred mostly by his brilliantly funny monologue on making big adult decisions Terrors of Pleasure, which was filmed for an HBO comedy special back in 1988 (you can watch the whole thing here). From there, we’ve followed his work as an actor in films like KING OF THE HILL and BEYOND RANGOON (and let’s not forget his recurring role on Fran Drescher’s series The Nanny), his sole novel Impossible Vacation, and his few filmed monologues. There was something about his wry sense of humor, his keen use of sarcasm, and his psychological/philosophical explorations that spoke to us…well, at least it spoke to me on a very deep level.

That said, I’ve re-watched and re-read Gray’s material a number of times, particularly ANATOMY for not only its sharp visual flair but also for how absolutely hilarious it is. I’ve seen this film at least 10 times at this point, and I still found myself laughing at his descriptions of the nutritional ophthalmologist’s office, the sweat lodge ceremony, and all the kids in his neighborhood grilling him about how he wouldn’t see a doctor no matter if rats were eating him from the inside out. 

Watching it this time, I was struck by how short the film was. It doesn’t crack the 80 minute mark. And, according to the bonus interview with Soderbergh, it could have been a lot shorter had the director not included the stories from the folks who had gone through eye ailments of their own. The same interview also revealed that segments of the monologue involving his relationship woes were cut out of the story as well. This reveals something great about Soderbergh – he’s a great economical storyteller. Even though almost none of his films move in chronological order, you can follow every step of the way because he knows how to reveal the perfect amount of information to keep things moving steadily forward. And it allows him some very dramatic reveals in the process (HAYWIRE and CONTAGION are the examples of this that leap readily to mind).

I also spent a lot of time just drinking in the visual aspect of this film that I’d appreciated but not completely before. The use of infrared film with the outside interviews was a particularly lovely touch, and how he was able to bring to life some of the background elements of the monologue through small visual aids like using a fish tank to highlight the conversation between Gray and the ophthalmologist about how fish might be the cause of his macula pucker and the stunning bits of slo-mo and camera moves to accompany his experience with the psychic surgeon Trini Boca. Considering the apparently small budget they had to work with, those touches seem even more spectacular.

gray1ANATOMY also reveals what a great actor Gray really was. Consider the fact that they filmed this thing in a warehouse, out of sequence, over the course of eight days. He maintained such great poise and was able to keep the narrative thread taut and complete through the whole thing. Something he was obviously capable of doing in front of a live audience, but it is writ large here. This can’t have been an easy project for anyone involved, but everyone did amazing work. It’s a jewel of both Soderbergh and Gray’s film careers and one that will hopefully gain a larger audience thanks to Criterion’s championing of it.

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