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.
Not only is his story interesting and unpredictable, Gray infuses the monologue with humor. If you’re not familiar with his persona, imagine a combination of Woody Allen-style self-deprecation and a shade of Jim Parsons’ awkward nebbish Sheldon Cooper (from The Big Bang Theory). But that’s just to give a ballpark idea for the completely uninitiated. Spalding Gray was his own man, a singular talent with the ability to draw in his audience, holding our attention using nothing more than his expressive storytelling skills. Soderbergh was just the right match to make his vision cinematic, using a variety of backdrops and dramatic lighting to keep the visuals interesting. Undoubtedly, Gray’s Anatomy is far from mainstream. But those willing to surrender to the power of Gray’s narrative abilities are likely to find themselves enriched by the experience.
Criterion has done an excellent job of presenting Gray’s Anatomy on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer is framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. According to the booklet, Soderbergh supervised the transfer himself. The result is free of visual flaws and is graced by a natural layer of fine grain. The black-and-white interview segments featuring non-actors are very grainy, which was by design, but the clarity is highly impressive. For such a visually claustrophobic film, there is quite a bit of color in the various backdrops and scrims—all of it is strikingly bold. In short, Gray’s Anatomy looks terrific in high definition.
From an audio standpoint, there is less to get excited about. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is easily acceptable in every way, it’s just that the film itself doesn’t require anything too fancy. All of Gray’s dialogue is clear and free of distortion. As explained in the booklet, the subtly effective score by Cliff Martinez is the primary beneficiary of the 5.1 lossless mix.
Criterion’s package of supplemental materials includes 2012 interviews with director Steven Soderbergh (12 minutes) and co-writer of the original monologue, Renee Shafransky (18 minutes). Soderbergh offers some insights about how he decided upon his visual approach for the film. Shafransky, who was not only Gray’s collaborator on numerous monologues but also his ex-wife, shares her thoughts on working with Gray. For those braver than I, there is “Swimming to the Macula,” 16 minutes of actual footage of Gray’s eye operation.
More accessible to the average viewer than surgical footage—and an outstanding extra feature—is a complete monologue by Gray, A Personal History of the American Theater, videotaped in 1982. The live performance was taped in front of an audience and, although visually very primitive, offers a far different experience of watching Gray perform. At 95 minutes, this bonus actually runs longer than the feature film itself. The monologue is about Gray’s experiences in the ‘60s as a theater actor.
Tragically, Spalding Gray took his own life in 2004 following struggles with severe depression and a traumatic brain injury sustained in a car accident in 2001. The Criterion Collection has also issued the perfect companion piece to Gray’s Anatomy, Steven Soderbergh’s 2010 documentary about Gray’s life, And Everything is Going Fine. Together, the two films provide the perfect introduction to the late monologist’s work, as well as a fantastic way for longtime fans to remember him.