Going Fully Gray: Assembling the Complete Works of Spalding Gray (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Okay, so pictured above is what you need to put together a definitive Spalding Gray collection.  We're going to be looking at even more discs in this article, but that line-up above nets you the best of absolutely everything.  At least to date, because as you can probably gather by the fact that one of the releases above is a VHS tape, there are still some deficits in terms of what's available.  Oh, and I should also point out that I'm talking about his famous monologue pieces, which he writes and performs.  Gray, of course, is also an actor, who's been in tons of TV shows and films from Spenser For Hire to the Redman and Method Man vehicle How High.  That would be a much more unwieldy and presumably less desirable collection.
We start out with Swimming To Cambodia, his first widely released theatrical monologue: the one that introduced him to the world and which is still probably his best.  Strictly speaking, it's not actually his first filmed monologue, but we'll come back to that.  In this one, Gray recounts the large tale of his small role in the exceptional film, The Killing Fields.  The making of largely takes a backseat, however, to his very personal voyage of discovery in the foreign land.  And if you're not completely familiar, yes, these movies consist of Spalding Gray sitting in a chair and talking directly to the audience for the entirety of the running time.  These monologues are performances he honed on stage and then eventually captured on film for theatrical release, typically directed by some rather notable directors, I might add.
Swimming To Cambodia was directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987.  It's fun to track what each director brings to the film, because they definitely didn't all take the same approach.  Demme makes a lot of dramatic cuts, editing together multiple performances if not even takes specifically for the film... this looks more like a recreated performance rather than a strictly documented one.  The camera never leaves Spalding except for a handful of very short clips of The Killing Fields.  But he certainly adds a dramatic score, as well as sound effects and a complex lighting scheme (we hear the sound of helicopters as he talks about them, and see the effect of their blades chopping the light on his face).  He even starts the film with Spalding walking through the streets on his way to the theater, reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre.
For a long time, this was only available on DVD in Canada from Seville Pictures.  Unfortunately, I sold it off long before I started this site, so I can't provide proper screenshot comparisons.  But I used to own it, so I can tell you it was a decent anamorphic widescreen, but completely barebones disc.  That came out in 2002, and we never got anything else until Shout Factory put it out in the US in 2015.
2015 US Shout Factory DVD.
Again, I can't compare screenshots to say for certain, but I'm pretty sure Shout's still using the same master as Seville.  That would explain why Shout would release the film on DVD only this far into the age of blu-ray, and why else would a 2015 release still be interlaced?  It's a little disappointing.  I've left the matting on the first screenshot because, further down the page, variant matting becomes relevant.  But for Swimming, I'm just showing it in the name of consistency.  The film's been slightly matted to 1.82:1.  This film really kinda needed a new master, but I have the feeling Shout didn't want to spring for it.  But if you can ignore the interlacing, it's not too bad for SD.

We get a strong and clear Dolby Stereo mix and no subtitles.  Again, it just feels like the budget was kept low here because they figured it would never be a big seller, which is a shame.
But Shout did add something besides a direct port of the Seville disc - a brand new interview with Demme.  It's about 17 minutes long and quite good.  It's well edited and he addresses most of the things you've probably always wondered about the filming of this movie and how it came together.  Unfortunately, that's it, though.  Not even a trailer.  The interview puts the Shout disc clearly over the top as the one to own, since everything else is pretty much perfectly equal, but if you have the Canadian DVD already, it's hard to recommend double-dipping for a single interview.  But then again, I did, because it's this film was in desperate need of supporting features.
Of course, if we're going to talk "desperate need," we have to move on to Gray's next film, Terrors Of Pleasure, his only film not even available on DVD anywhere in the world.  It was an HBO television exclusive when it debuted, so it's not that surprising; but this is still the second Spalding monologue film and we really shouldn't allow it to be lost in the sands of time.  Terrors was shot right on the heels of Swimming To Cambodia, and aired the very same year, in December of 1987 (online sources all tend to date the film as 1988, but that's just not correct), when the iron was quite hot.  It's the story of Spalding struggling to live the idealic American dream by buying a house and land in the Catskills with his girlfriend.  This is probably the most comedic of Gray's pieces, as he essentially lived through his own, rural Money Pit.
Terrors was directed Thomas Schlamme, whose name may not be quite as recognizable as Gray's other directors; but he's certainly not a nobody.  He's directed, and continues to direct, a ton of television stuff, including plenty of comedy specials and performances, which make him an obvious choice for a Spalding endeavor.  Plus, he has directed a few features, including So I Married an Axe Murderer and Miss Firecracker.  He takes a bit of an unexpected approach, though, not only filming Gray performing his monologue to a very large audience, but also filming dramatic (or comedic) scenes with Gray and other actors on location.  We never hear any audio from those scenes, which only act as visuals for Gray's monologue, which becomes narration whenever they play.  They only make up about 10-15% of the film, though; with almost all of the movie still being just Gray sitting at his desk with his glass of water.  And unlike Demme, he doesn't add music (except for the opening and closing credits), add sound effects or play with the lighting.  The camera moves, but it's more more like a naturalistic recording of a single performance than Swimming, which really dramatizes it.
1988 US HBO Video VHS.
So HBO Video put out this VHS tape back in 1988, and that's basically been it.  An audio-only version of it was issued on tape and CD a few years later, in 1993, though it's actually a different performance of the same material, as that was recorded in 1991.  So as far as Schlamme's film, this VHS release is all there is.  It's fullscreen, measuring in at the standard 1.33:1, which is presumably the correct OAR, as this was filmed to air on 80s television.  I would guess, however, especially since they went out and shot scenes on location and so on, that this was shot on film rather than video.  And if that's true, it would benefit a lot from a format upgrade.  I remember when Criterion was gathering up a lot of his older material (more on that further below), I was really hoping Terrors of Pleasure would be included then.  But alas, it was not.
Now we advance a few years to 1992 and his next film, Monster In a Box.  Ostensibly, it's about his struggles to write his first and only novel, Impossible Vacation.  I read Impossible Vacation, by the way - it was pretty good, but not as compelling as his monologues.  Anyway, Monster is naturally about a lot more than writing a novel... the book is a very personal account of his religious upbringing and mother's suicide, and struggling to complete what turned out into a massive tome nearly threatened to turn into a massive midlife crisis.  In some ways, it feels like his best and most "puke your guts out on stage" work, but on the other hand, it's also less focused, reaching out in a lot of directions at once, going into his experiences in Hollywood, traveling to Russia to screen Swimming To Cambodia etc.  There's a sense of The Big One here, where Gray is like Michael Moore in between Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine, throwing what he's got on screen before he zeroes in on his next honed project.  There's some great material to be found in there; but it's a bit of a mess.
Monster In a Box is directed by the highly successful British documentary director Nick Broomfield.  Even if you don't recognize the name, you've probably seen a couple of his celebrity docs on people like Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, Biggie & Tupac, Sarah Palin or Whitney Houston, as well as some of his "sexier" docs that always air on cable TV, like Chicken Ranch, Sex and Fetishes.  He's that guy.  I can't say I'm a huge fan, but he's definitely had a massive influence on the genre, advancing tabloid-style documentaries, and he did bring some undeniably compelling qualities to the table, including doing a lot of Roger & Me-style shooting, making his own efforts to document the subject a part of the film.  Incorporating the frame into the picture, as they say.
But this, of course, is one of his more restrained projects.  In fact, he explains in the DVD liner notes, "I basically borrowed the approach used by Jonathan Demme."  So again, the camera pushes in dramatically and cuts to close-ups and profiles.  The background scrim changes color, there are sound effects and he even brings back Swimming's composer, Laurie Anderson.  Apart from a very dramatic opening shot, however, this film is a little less dramatized than Swimming.  The scrim changes color, but not really the whole lighting scheme.  There's no dramatic effects like the helicopter blades, let alone film clips from The Killing Fields to cut to.  Broomfield has basically imitated Demme, but also toned him down.
Monster In a Box took its time finding its way onto DVD.  In fact, it came out first in the UK, only because Nick Broomfield was releasing massive, definitive collections of his work.  So in 2006, Monster first appeared exclusively in the Metrodome's Nick Broomfield: The Early Years boxed set, packaged along with his first seven other films.  Shortly after, however, Image finally released it on DVD in the states, a disc was has long since gone out of print and now sells for crazy amounts of money used online.  Image reissued it briefly in 2007 as a 3-picture collection, along with the completely unrelated films Waterland and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, which is also out of print and rather pricey.  But it's usually cheaper than the stand-alone disc, and a smart option if you're trying to find a copy of Monster In a Box without taking out a second mortage.
2006 UK Metrodome DVD top; 2006 US Image DVD bottom.
So, as you can see, despite coming out in the same year, these two discs are very different.  Starting with the most obvious, the UK disc is fullframe and the US disc is widescreen.  Specifically, the UK disc is 1.33:1, while the US disc is 1.67:1, and we're not talking about open/ closed mattes here.  The UK disc just chops off the sides.  Next, the color timing is remarkably different.  The background scrims in the first set of shots almost look like they're taken from two different sections of the film, but no, those are actually matching frames.  I had to go back and double-check myself, though.  There's also one more issue with the UK disc.  You might not notice in the shots above (though it's there if you look closely), but let's advance a frame or two and you'll really see the issue:
2006 UK Metrodome DVD.
...It's interlaced!  And badly interlaced.  Usually, interlacing occurs when the framerate is off (common in PAL/ NTSC conversions), so two frames are merged together with an ugly combing effect, which if you're lucky, your player may smoosh together into a smoother, ghostly look.  But if you look at his left elbow (his left, our right), you'll notice he has three elbows, meaning the interlacing is extra off.  At least, with Gray sitting relatively still in a chair for 98% of the film, you don't notice it so much, but that's some really screwy interlacing.

Both discs feature Dolby Digital stereo mixes, and neither include subtitles.
So, if the UK disc is so clearly inferior, why is it included on the photo at the top of the definitive collection?  Well, if you'll notice both Monster In a Boxes are there, and the Image disc is definitely there because it's by far the best presentation of the film.  And honestly, that's all most Spalding fans should probably bother with.  But if you're a real die-hard, there's a reason to get the UK box, too: extras.  Or an extra, at least.  The US disc is completely barebones, not even a crappy bonus trailer, though it does include a nice 4-page insert with notes by Robert Foster.  But yeah, the disc itself is barren.  But let's talk about the Broomfield box.  Well, first of all, obviously, it contains a bunch of other Broomfield films.  And even if you're not such a fan, some of his earlier works, before he settled into the filmmaker he is today, are actually quite good.  Like, I'd recommend his Juvenile Liason films to anybody at all who appreciates documentaries (really the first one is great and the second is more like a follow-up that doesn't stand on its own, but is quite interesting for anyone who's seen the original), and Driving Me Crazy is a fun, curiosity piece where you can see him taking his first steps into his contemporary style.

For Monster In a Box, though?  Well, every film in this set includes a new video introduction by the director himself, and yes that includes Monster.  It's short - just a couple minutes - but it's the only special feature Monster In a Box has ever had, and he does talk about how he came to the project and his approach.  I wish it was longer, but I'm glad to have it over nothing.  There's also a retrospective documentary on his early films, called a "History Reel" on the box; but it skips right over Monster In a Box, presumably because (based on the aforementioned interview), he seemed to take Monster as a "for hire" job rather than a passion project he developed on his own.  Still, lame either way.  And, similarly, there's a "Trailer Reel" for Broomfield's docs, but they don't even include the Monster trailer.  So, in a way, it's just a question of would you get the Broomfield box just for a super short interview.  But again, I do have to seriously recommend some of the other films in that set, outside of Gray interest.
So if Swimming To Cambodia was Roger & Me and Monster In a Box was The Big One, what's our Bowling for Columbine in this tortured Michael Moore analogy?  Gray's Anatomy!  Admittedly, Monster wasn't quite as lost in the woods as The Big One, but still, when you come to 1996's Anatomy, you really do feel the return to singular direction and purpose.  Gray talks about how his medical issues lead him on a spiritual journey through alternative medicine and a reconciliation with his Christian Science past.  There are certainly some crazy anecdotes and funny moments, but the material takes a darker, less comedic tone.  Gray is more clearly troubled by his own mortality, so it's all a bit heavier, and it's incredibly unfortunate that this turned out to be his last film, because it's so good.
A lot of people take issue with this film, though, and I can see why... I'm not even sure I don't wholly agree with them.  See, this one was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and expertly so.  The drama is really enhanced here, taking it further even than Demme, putting Gray in various elaborate sets with a colorful score.  The audience is completely removed, doing away with the conceit that this is a live performance being captured rather than a proper movie.  It's terrifically done, and that's not the part anybody has a problem with.  The thing is, Soderbergh takes it further, filming new material outside of Gray's monologue.  And he goes a lot further than Schlamme.  These aren't just new images to illustrate Gray's words, they're entirely distinct man-on-the-street style interviews.  So, essentially, when Gray talks about going to a spirit healer, Soderbergh cuts away and asks ordinary people if they would ever go see a spirit healer.  I guess to balance out Gray, who after all, is pretty eccentric in his adventures.  Their ordinary takes ground Gray's extraordinary tales.  Gray's shot in glorious, extreme color and they're all in black and white.  But fans argue, and again I kind of agree, Gray's expert, artistic monologue doesn't really need enhancing, especially by interviews with people who don't have very much interesting to add and mostly just continually express the same, one-note sentiment ("a spiritual sweat-lodge? No, that sounds too weird for me!").
They might be there for a more practical purpose, though.  In fact, there's no "might be" about it, because Soderbergh's interviews confirm it.  Gray's monologue is a tight hour, and they're trying to make something that can play in mainstream theaters nationwide.  So the film simply had to be padded out with something.  And they're not really a problem.  They're all kind of charmingly affable, and their bits are short.  And he did manage to find one woman with a disturbing and wild anecdote about accidentally putting superglue in her eye because she thought it was eye drops.  So yes, they still do distract from the thrust of the film and Gray in particular.  But they're attractively shot and the film might genuinely be better of without them, I think people are being a bit melodramatic when they express being heavily bothered by those sections.
Gray's Anatomy was actually Gray's first film on DVD, coming out from Fox Lorber in 1999.  As you can imagine with a disc that hold, though, it doesn't really hold up.  It's non-anamorphic, misframed, and barebones.  It's all we had, though, until 2012, when Criterion came and decked it out with sweet DVD and blu-ray editions.  They were sold separately, but I've got my hands on both for this article.
1999 US Fox Lorber DVD top; 2012 US Criterion DVD mid;
2012 US Criterion DVD blu bottom.
So, being non-anamorphic, the 1999 DVD is floating in a sea of black on a widescreen television.  On top of that, despite being presented in an almost correct ratio of 1.82:1, it's clearly mis-framed, missing a little bit of picture on the right and a lot along the bottom.  The Criterion discs fix this, and matte to the film to an exactly correct 1.85:1.  The old DVD is also very smeary and lacking in detail compared to Criterion's restored HD digital transfer taken from the 35mm interpositive.  Grain is very distinct and natural on the blu.  It's a very big jump in quality and a welcome opportunity to toss out our old discs.

Criterion also remastered the audio in 5.1, in DTS-HD on the blu.  They also added English subtitles, which the DVD had neglected.
And the special features!  Even if you're a person who doesn't care about extras, the features here are essential.  I mean, not on the Fox Lorber DVD.  That only had the trailer.  But Criterion, well, let's ramp up.  First of all, it has about 17 minutes of graphic footage of Gray's eye surgery, which is... weird.  Gray talks about getting the surgery in his monologue, sure; but it's really going several extra miles to include the footage of it on the DVD.  I mean, who would want to watch that?  Anyway, what you'll be more likely to want to watch are the excellent on-camera interviews with Soderbergh and Gray's collaborator Renee Shafransky (yes, she's that Renee).  Plus, the trailer's on here, and there's an attractive booklet with an essay by Amy Taubin.

But what's so essential?  A Personal History of the American Theater - a previously unreleased Gray monologue from 1982!  Yes, an entire other feature-length monologue.  In fact, it's longer than Gray's Anatomy.  Now, it's not as dramatically directed as his feature films... this time it really does feel like just a single, filmed performance.  The camera does move, though, reframing for closer shots, etc, throughout.  And as fun as some of Demme and Soderbergh's theatrics are; at their core, all of Gray's films are really just about his delivery of his material.  And that's exactly what we get.  A lost film.  And interestingly, by the way, Criterion puts it on a separate, second disc for the DVD release, but fits it all on a single disc for the blu.  Anyway, now you see why this new edition is so essential, even besides the massive upgrade it already gives over the 1999 disc.
And that's the last of his films, so you might think we're done here, but not quite.  Because I've also got to include And Everything Is Going Fine, the 2010 documentary.  Now, this isn't a film by Gray, but a documentary about him, directed after his passing by Steven Soderbergh.  But it's a very unusual documentary, created specifically in the style of Gray's monologues... essentially it is just one long monologue by Gray.  Soderbergh lovingly edited all of Gray's filmed monologue films as well as various interviews into one, coherent piece where Gray tells the story of his own life. We see some of his childhood home movies during the closing credits, but otherwise that's it.  There's no narration, no other interviews, just Gray edited into one last monologue, from his earliest films (yes, including A Personal History) to rare, new interviews after he moved to Ireland.
It's pretty great, though with a pretty big concession.  If you own all his films, so much is taken from them that it gets pretty redundant.  Like, if you watch And Everything right after viewing his other movies, it can feel like a real grind watching all the same footage twice in a row.  You'll feel a little starved waiting for some footage from a television interview or anything new.  And there's a good chance you will have watched at least some of his films right beforehand, because Criterion released this documentary (again in separate DVD and blu-ray editions) in conjunction with their Gray's Anatomy/ Personal History set in 2012.
2012 US Criterion DVD top; 2012 US Criterion DVD blu bottom.
So this film is compiled entirely of old footage, and like the shots above show, it's almost all low quality video footage massaged to look as good as they could make it.  Rather than shifting the aspect ratios, they make the unusual choice to box it all into a standard 1.33:1 full frame.  And it carries over all the flaws of the materials Soderbergh had to work with, so sections are interlaced or over compressed.  I mean, that's typical for docs, but there's really basically nothing here that benefits from HD.  So what I'm sorta saying is, if you want to take an opportunity to save a couple bucks, Criterion's blu rarely if ever looks better than their DVD edition, so you might just want to cop that.

Both versions just feature a simple mono audio track, though in LPCM on the blu, with optional English subtitles.
So maybe you're thinking you don't need this release.  You might be less interested in a doc about Gray than one of his actual films, especially if so much of the footage from the doc is lifted from the films you already have.  But let's talk extras.  First of all, there's a 21-minute making of doc with Soderbergh, producer Kathleen Russo and editor Susan Littenberg.  It's not bad, and we get the trailer and a nice booklet with an essay by Nell Casey, who edited The Journals of Spalding Gray

But nope, it's another essential release, because Criterion has uncovered and included another lost Spalding Gray monologue!  This time it's Sex and Death To the Age 14 (I used to have a copy of this one in paperback... in fact, I probably still do), recorded in the same year (1982) and location as A Personal History.  And like that one, it's a more simply recorded performance; but for Gray fans, even if you could take or leave And Everything Is Going Fine, you've got to get this release.  All together, it gives us a total of seven Gray films - the complete collection.  Of course, if you no longer have a VCR, you may need to start a letter writing campaign to HBO to not be stuck at six.  You'll have my support.

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