Don’t let the idea of watching a movie that consists of little more than one man telling a story put you off from watching Gray’s Anatomy. Already a relatively short feature film at 79 minutes, once Spalding Gray begins telling his story, the time seems to fly right by. Gray originally wrote the monologue as a stage presentation. Telling very long, very personal monologues about his life was Gray’s primary stock in trade. Director Steven Soderbergh adapted a pared-down version of the monologue for this 1997 release. With the exception of a handful of interviewees who open the film with their personal stories of horrific eye trauma (which are almost certain to make the viewer squirm anxiously), Gray’s Anatomy is a one-man show.
Good news for squeamish viewers: Gray’s own story of dealing with an eye condition called epiretinal membrane is not nearly as uncomfortable. In fact, epiretinal membrane—commonly known as macular pucker—is relatively common in older adults. Perhaps that was the point of Soderbergh’s inclusion of the gorier stories, most of which were caused by accidents or failure by the individual to protect his eyes while working. There are all sorts of scary, disgusting, and life-altering injuries that can happen to anyone’s eyes. What Gray was dealing with, while admittedly very disturbing as evidenced by his description of the condition’s symptoms (primarily visual distortions), was perhaps not worth the intense avoidance he employed as a coping method prior to finally having corrective microsurgery.
Then again, who am I to say? I have freaked out about far lesser physical ailments. That’s one of the things that makes Gray’s Anatomy so relatable and, in turn, so utterly engrossing. Gray guides us through his process of denial, followed by an insistence on searching for alternative treatment (going so far as to seek help from the “Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons” in the Philippines), and ending with a meditation on the dualities of life, using his post-surgery left eye as a metaphor (“Cover my left [eye]: ecstasy. Cover my right: despair.”). His macular pucker is something that can happen to anyone. That’s a concept Gray clearly had a difficult time accepting—that there was no identifiable cause to his condition. Tapping into the anxieties and outright neuroses that many of us feel when dealing with illness, he takes them to philosophical heights most of us don’t reach.