Gray’s Anatomy (1997) / Arthur Lipsett

June 16, 1997

Fans of Spalding Gray can rejoice: he’s finally put out another neurotically witty film chock full of storytelling goodness, as only he can deliver. Puntastically entitled Gray’s Anatomy, this outing (his four filmed performance to date) delves into similar territory as his previous talkies. As before, we get lots of Gray recounting some unusual occurrence in his life; here, though, he’s taken out of the live performance loop and into the studio, with some interesting, if mixed, results.

Featuring some crackerjack direction by pseudo-indie wunderkind Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape), Gray’s Anatomy reinforces Gray’s arguable position as the ‘king of raconteurs’. He’s in top form here, mixing equal parts neuroses, hilarity and surrealism as he recounts how he tried to avoid the doctor’s scalpel in treating an eye condition known as a ‘mascula pucker’.

For those unfamiliar with Gray or his storytelling might, what he does is simple. He sits behind a desk, and for the entire length of his films, he talks. It’s hard to believe that watching someone blather on for ninety minutes or so would be interesting, but Gray makes it not only possible, but also highly rewarding. His storytelling style meanders like the Red River, splitting off on vaguely related tangents but always finding its way back to the main flow of his tale. He’s an enthralling speaker with a wicked sense of humor, and Gray’s Anatomy constitutes one of his best outings.

Here Gray weaves his saga of a man driven to blink. A mascula pucker (like your retina is “Saran Wrap, bunching”) leaves him nearly blind in one eye, which prompts his new age friends to comment, “Well, what is it you don’t want to see?” After being horrified by the prospects of getting his eye “scraped”, or as another doctor put it, “peeled”, Gray embarks on a journey of cosmically hilarious proportions, where he visits a family of insane nutritionists, participates in an Indian sweat box ritual (in the nude, in the snow), and then travels to the Philippines for some faith healing from the “Elvis Presley of psychic surgery” - all in a panicked attempt to avoid an operation he likens to “The Andalusian Dog - magnified 100 times”.

Filmed in a hypervisual style by Soderbergh, Gray’s Anatomy places Gray in the atypical surroundings of a film studio, which allows for a larger use of lights and set - ironic, considering Gray’s ailment. In his previous films (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and an HBO special called Terrors of Pleasure), Gray spoke to an audience. Here, freed from the stage, Soderbergh surrounds Gray with a lot of flash and smoke (literally), with varying success. There’s no denying that Gray’s story is the main attraction here, which the visuals sometimes overshadow.

That aside, there’s also an excellent opener, beautifully photographed in black and white by Elliot Davis (who worked with Soderbergh on The Underneath), which features some other eye tales by various speakers, including a literal talking head, who nearly steals the show from Gray with a hilarious take on the Indian sweat box ceremony.

Whether or not you think Gray is a pretentious screwball or a twisted genius, there’s no denying that he has a unique talent for observation. Though Gray’s Anatomy is Gray’s fourth film (and fourteenth monologue), his storytelling still maintains a fresh vibrancy that is pure entertainment. After Gray gets through with you, your gut will ache from laughing, and your views on health and medicine will never be quite the same.


Playing at the Cinematheque for one night only is The Dark Genius of Arthur Lipsett, a collection of short films by one of the most radical filmmakers ever to work within the Canadian National Film Board. Lipsett was a warped experimenter who took bits of film from the NFB trim bin (fragments cut out of movies, and destined for the garbage) and edited them together into quick bursts of uneasiness, with a soundtrack to match. He was worshipped by other geniuses like Stanley Kubrick (who wanted Lipsett to create the trailer for Dr. Strangelove) and George Lucas, who was so enamored with Lipsett’s creations that he wanted to relocate to Canada and make similar movies. (The title of Lucas’ THX-1138 was apparently inspired by Lipsett’s 21-87 - just imagine what Hollywood would be like if Lucas had become a Canuck!)

But, Lucas didn’t move and instead made Star Wars, Kubrick sulked into hiding in England, and Lipsett (a very sick man) made a few more incredibly disturbing shorts before committing suicide. Thankfully, his contributions to the movies still stands, and you can catch some of his work at the Cinematheque on Friday, June 20th at 7:30.

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