Christmas Is Coming!

Monster in a Box

As filmmaking goes, Nick Broomfield’s Monster in a Box doesn’t have much to offer. It’s basically Spalding Gray sitting at a desk talking, with some lighting effects and unobtrusive but effective mood music by Laurie Anderson. So, naturally, it’s one of my favorite movies — number 14 on the list, to be exact.

The list was composed without much thought given to the essential elements of superior cinema; it simply contains my favorites, ranked in rough order. You might notice, for instance, that Citizen Kanethe Greatest Movie Ever Made!!! — sulks in the lower half of my top 100, wondering what the fuck it’s doing sandwiched between Chasing Amy and Close Encounters. And yet, there, in the top 20, is a performance film, and a not-terribly-dynamic one at that.

But it’s the best document we have of a writer and performer at the peak of his considerable powers, working with his best material. It’s certainly not the apex of cinematic artistry, but it uses the medium effectively, preserving a great story in its proper context — told from the stage in front of an audience.

Spalding Gray is a character actor and theater artiste who has made his living writing and performing monologues about himself. Several have been filmed, among them Swimming to Cambodia, about Gray’s experiences making The Killing Fields, and Gray’s Anatomy, dealing with his journey through “alternative” medicine to fix an eye condition.

I’ve heard or watched several Gray performances, but only Monster in a Box works for me as something more than entertainment.

Make no mistake, Gray is a compelling storyteller with tremendous gifts. He dives into performance (he barks quite effectively during Monster in a Box, for example), his humor knows no bounds or taste (he’s as comfortable with fart and vomit stories as with deadpan jokes about his agent’s lack of familiarity with theater), and he drags the audience with him as his vignettes build, often to hysterical climaxes. In Monster in a Box, Gray is so worked up about everything that he’s panicking, and his state of mind is summarized in one frothing, frenzied shout, transforming a child’s enthusiasm into sheer terror: “And Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!” It has become, for me, the perfect thing to say whenever the world is threatening to overtake me, even if it’s only April. (The monologue also gives us the classic “magenta balls of gas,” a phrase of infinite utility.)

Gray is also a master of weaving together wildly disparate tales and themes, and he has perfected the rhythms of storytelling — when to return to the main thread, when the audience needs a break, exactly how long each little story should be, where to insert that pause, that emphasis, that arched eyebrow.

The problem with Spalding Gray is that he thinks Spalding Gray is the most interesting person in the world. He’s certainly up there, but there’s only so much I can take before I realize how disconnected he is from the real world. He leads a pampered life, and while it’s very amusing, it’s generally not resonant.

But Monster in a Box is different.

The monologue is essentially the story of Gray struggling to write his novel, Impossible Vacation, also known as the Monster. The book is about a young man, Brewster North, embarking on all sorts of adventures while avoiding dealing with his mother’s suicide. The performance is about an older man, Spalding Gray, embarking on all sorts of adventures while avoiding writing his book and dealing with his mother’s suicide. This only hints, by the way, at Gray’s level of self-involvement.

One of the beauties of Monster in a Box is that the nominal subject of the performance — the book — is actually a small part of the story in terms of the amount of time dedicated to it. Yet it looms over everything else, because no matter what Gray is doing — going to writer’s colony, working on a project about alien abduction, visiting Russia as part of a traveling film festival, playing the stage manager in Our Town, visiting a Third World country for film-script research, fretting about AIDS, barking in front of Cher — the Monster is there, tapping its fingers and waiting to be finished. (And Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!)

Of course, the unfinished book is a metaphor for the suicide that neither Gray nor his lead character is processing or working through. And therein lies the monologue’s gentle power. Monster in a Box is a story of avoidance, and it employs avoidance as its primary narrative device. Gray doesn’t talk about how he’s not writing the Monster, and not confronting his mother’s suicide; instead he’s telling us everything else he’s doing, letting the audience figure out the rest.

What you’re left with is a riotously funny set of stories that abruptly and elegantly closes with a quiet moment of sadness — unexpected because the rest of the monologue is so devoid of anything heartfelt. The narrative’s end, soft but with the impact of a hammer, finds just the right balance, a certain airiness lent by all the humor that’s come before but with the heft of real emotion. And then the monologue ends with a humble grace note — more in the earnest phrasing than the words — that finishes the humanizing of Spalding Gray: “Thank you for coming.”

At first, there appears to be no real resolution, until you realize that Impossible Vacation and Monster in a Box represent Gray’s agonizing efforts to come to terms with his mother’s suicide. Impossible Vacation ended up amusing yet largely empty. Monster in a Box feels like a second attempt, and it’s just about perfect.

In opening this piece, I referred to the movie as “Nick Broomfield’s Monster in a Box,” even though the work is clearly Spalding Gray’s. That’s because Broomfield deserves an enormous amount of credit for his austerity in filming and presenting the monologue. Steven Soderbergh dressed up Gray’s Anatomy with interviews and other ephemera that distracted from the narrative. And I understand that choice, because the monologue simply can’t sustain itself the way Monster in a Box does. Broomfield recognizes what he has, and he stays the hell out of the way.

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