“Monster in a Box” (1992)

by A.J. Hakari

"Monster in a Box" poster


Spalding Gray defied all perceptions of what constituted a gripping storyteller. A white, verbose, vaguely upper-crust New Englander may not have seemed like the fellow to turn to for a riveting yarn, but monologue-based pictures like Gray’s Anatomy and Swimming to Cambodia put this notion to rest. With witty embellishments and heartbreaking reality dealt out in equal doses, Gray told tales that had you clinging to his every, impeccably-arranged word. Sandwiched in between the aforementioned features was 1992’s Monster in a Box, a performance piece inspired by the success he found after Cambodia‘s release clashing with his efforts to write a novel based upon his youth. Like any proper follow-up, this supplies more of the same style of cinema that came before it but sneaks a number of tweaks into the mix, upping the score in terms of content and visual tricks employed to help set the mood. Not only is Monster in a Box is as funny and engaging as its brothers, it’s in several ways the most personal and revealing of the whole bunch.

The year is 1987. Unleashed into theaters was Swimming to Cambodia, a film in which actor/writer/performance artist Spalding Gray spoke at length about — among many other experiences — the time he spent on the set of the Vietnam drama The Killing Fields. The movie was a surprise hit, and Gray soon found himself motivated to start work on “Impossible Vacation,” a novel about a young man’s inability to escape life with his mother (a situation not unlike one the author was stuck in once upon a time). However, the fates had other plans in store for old Spalding, designs that dragged him both unwillingly and of his own volition away from concentrating on the book. HBO recruited him for a documentary involving alien abductees. An arts grant came through and allowed him to put together a theatrical project about Los Angeles residents who had nothing to do with show business. Broadway came calling and begged him to play the lead role in a new production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” But strangely, the more Gray’s time was taken up by other distractions, the more “Impossible Vacation” ballooned in length, transforming into a massive tome that thrust all manner of neuroses (new and old) to the surface.

Directed by Kurt & Courtney‘s Nick Broomfield, Monster in a Box borrows many of its cues from Swimming to Cambodia. As was the conceit in that film, this one consists of Gray performing before a live audience, one whose reactions are sometimes audible but mostly (and thankfully) remain silent, so as not to derail the mood of the moment. Minimal props are incorporated, save for a handful of backdrops, Gray’s signature desk, and the towering draft of his beast of a novel perched to the side. This time, however, Broomfield opts to heighten the atmosphere with a touch of theatrical bombast, from shaking the camera about as our subject describes enduring an earthquake to using glaring lights and tight close-ups as he recounts when his hypochondriac streak convinced him he was suffering AIDS symptoms. It never becomes a full-blown production like Steven Soderbergh would make out of Gray’s Anatomy, but Monster in a Box strikes an effective balance, nicely reflecting the tenuous grasp on reality Gray has as he tells us of his travels. His is a journey that goes from health-obsessed Hollyweird to an insufferably-quaint writer’s colony, from old Broadway to a Russian film festival, where a translator has a doozy of a time summarizing Cambodia.

But as teeming with entertaining anecdotes as it undeniably is, there’s a darkness to Monster in a Box that leaves it a well-rounded and haunting experience. This becomes doubly evident when viewing the film over ten years after Gray took his own life, seeing him reopen old wounds in the process of writing his book and becoming once more just like his protagonist, unable to rid himself of the past and its horrors. The ending proves particularly profound, capping off nearly an hour and a half of chiefly laughter with the enigmatic image of a man who’s right back where he started, having to relive prior traumas while being denied the chance to truly exorcise them. Gray’s delivery does a marvelous job of playing on the humor and hurt in all of the circumstances he presents, hooking you with the outrageousness of his latest digression but leaving you pondering its deeper implications. Long story short, Gray more than confirms his status as a consummate wordsmith here, as his observations are bathed in wit, his knack for self-deprecation ranking at Woody Allen-esque levels, and his sheer ability to simply relate his goings-on in a fascinating fashion utterly palpable.

Though I’m certain the market clamoring for monologue-driven feature films is a niche one, Monster in a Box still comes in at the head of its class. Having revisited it for the first time in ages, I found myself just as enthralled as I was long ago, with my eyes glued to the screen, my ears at attention, and — saccharine as it is to say so — my soul touched. An hour and a half seems hardly suitable for a man you could seemingly listen to forever, but it’s a comfort to find that the amazing and bittersweet Monster in a Box doesn’t waste a single moment of its star attraction’s time.