One of the great raconteurs of stage and screen, Spalding Gray, came together with one of cinema’s boldest image-makers, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, for Gray’s Anatomy, a spellbinding adaptation of Gray’s 1993 monologue of the same name (cowritten with Renée Shafransky). In it, Gray, with typical sardonic relish, chronicles his arduous journey through the diagnosis and treatment of a rare and alarming ocular condition. For the monologist, this experience occasioned a meditation on illness and mortality, medicine and metaphysics; for the filmmaker, it was a chance to experiment with ways of bringing his subject’s words to brilliant, eye-opening life.
Steven Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy delivers a rather stunning Blu-ray presentation on this dual-layer disc. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
What has always caught me off guard about this film, which is essentially Spalding Gray sitting at a desk telling a story, is how visually elaborate it is. There’s a lot going on onscreen throughout the film. I actually forgot how colourful the film was and on Blu-ray the colours look absolutely spectacular. Colours are bold and vivid without any smearing or bleeding. They’re crisply rendered and look absolutely gorgeous, particularly reds.
The transfer also presents an incredibly sharp presentation, with a stunning amount of detail always present: it never looks soft. The finer details, like the brickwork on the image of a building in the distance during one sequence, where you can make out every single individual brick, really are incredible. Nothing gets lost here. The black and white sequences, shot using infrared film, also look particularly crisp. Film grain is also cleanly rendered and looks completely perfect. At worst there is some minor damage in the print, but that’s about the only issue I could fine with this transfer. Everything else about it is stunning.
Criterion has up-mixed (I think you can say) the film’s sound track to DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. The booklet states that this 5.1 upgrade concerns the film’s music more than anything else. There’s a notable presence of Cliff Martinez’s score in the surrounds, though it’s more of a subtle effect and rarely calls attention to itself. Most everything sticks to the front speakers. The bass, though, seems to be where most of the effort went and though it’s nothing earth shattering, so to speak, the woofer does get some decent use.
But again most everything sticks to the front channels and it’s all clean and clear. The music has some great range and subtle touches. But most importantly Spalding Gray’s dialogue is sharp and clear, never muffled. His voice can move between the three front speakers but it sounds to concentrate primarily on the center speaker.
The film is simple but it does have a pretty sharp sound design, and Criterion’s Blu-ray brilliantly presents it. It’s a subtle but effective presentation.
Criterion’s special edition of the film comes with a few supplements starting with a new interview with director Steven Soderbergh. This short 12-minute feature presents Soderbergh talking about how he first came to hearing of Gray and the other film versions of his monologues (Monster in a Box and Swimming to Cambodia.) For his film Soderbergh talks about how he wanted a far more visually elaborate film and talks about how he accomplished some of the more unique images. He also explains the reason for the “everyman” interviews scattered about the film: when he finished editing the film was too short so he needed to insert something else and came up with the interviews (which allowed him to experiment with infrared film.) He also talks about what it was like working with Gray, how Gray was able to adapt his monologue to Soderbergh’s visual sense, and then about editing the final product. I actually sort of hoped Soderbergh might do a commentary for this film, but this interview covers things well enough to give an idea of the production.
Criterion next gets a new interview with Renee Shafransky, Spalding’s cowriter and wife for a short time. She talks about working with him, the film versions of his work, and his personality. She also talks about his process and tells some of the truths about his work; she admits that his stories are actually composed from many different events in his life, not everything is linear, and he did purposely stage some scenarios to collect material. She also compares the film version of Gray’s Anatomy and Gray’s actual monologue pointing out how the differ, primarily in what they’re actually about: the film concentrates on the operation while the actual monologue is more about getting older and finding what’s important. Overall it’s a nice, personal interview, which gets into the details of how Gray developed his work.
The next supplement is a rather surprising inclusion, Spalding Gray’s actual eye operation, presented here as Swimming to the Makula. The silent footage is not for the squeamish. The first little bit is a close-up of the operation of the eye and hard to make out. But at around the 10-minute point it pulls back to expose the eye and you get to see the surgeon stitch up the incisions in the eye. It’s hard to watch at times (I’m squeamish when it comes to things poking at eyes) so again one should probably watch with caution.
The film’s theatrical trailer follows.
Finally, Criterion includes a video recording of one of Gray’s monologues, A Personal History of the American Theater, this particular one recorded in November of 1982. This 97-minute performance (divided into 48-chapters on this disc) presents Gray talking about the plays he was in from 1960 to 1970, delivering many charming and funny anecdotes. He apparently goes over the roles in a random order yet despite this the words just dance out with no effort on his part, and as usual he manages to captivate you. Though presented in 1080p it’s footage that was originally recorded on video so it still looks particularly nasty.
Amy Taubin then offers an excellent essay on both the original monologue and the film version, though concentrates more on Soderbergh’s version.
Again I do wish Soderbergh could have offered a commentary but the interviews are fine enough and the inclusion of another of Gray’s monologues is a great addition. Not a spectacular set but it works well enough.
Supplements are fine but the real stand out is the spectacular transfer Criterion delivers. It looks phenomenal and goes above and beyond what one would expect from a film of this nature. It looks incredible and on that basis, anyone looking to own this film should look no further. This Blu-ray comes highly recommended.