Sex, Drugs, and a Holiday in Cambodia
In 1987 Spalding Grey, released his indy film/monologue, Swimming to Cambodia. In the monologue, Gray discusses a trip he took to Thailand, his experiences on the trip, and the events that led him there. Of primary significance to the monologue is the historical understanding of the events which occurred in Cambodia and Southeast Asia as a result of the United States involvement in Vietnam. Grey uses his words to paint a picture with the brutality of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as the canvas. The picture Grey ends up showing us is one of exploitation, mass murder, and oppression. Grey is certainly not the only artist who has drawn parallels between the United States material involvement in Cambodia and the genocide that followed. Nor is he the first to uncover the connection between the excesses of the ‘West’ and the totalitarianism which has wreaked havoc on the ‘East’.
Well you’ll work harder with a gun in your back, For a bowl of rice a day, Slave for soldiers til you starve, Then your head skewered on a stake, Now you can go where people are one, Now you can go where they get things done, What you need my son: Is a holiday in Cambodia, Where people dress in black.. –Holiday In Cambodia, Lyrics by Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys 1980
Much like the Dead Kennedys, Spalding Grey draws connections between empowerment and oppression that raise uncomfortable questions about the socially constructed identities we live inside. While Jello Biafra was primarily aiming his criticism at heavily educated young American liberals by comparing them to the Khmer Rouge, Grey critiques a different population, that of the film industry and the ‘find yourself in a third world country’ travel crowd. Grey’s monologue begins with how he got a part in ‘The Killing Fields’, a movie about the genocide in Cambodia. While he is discussing what it is like to be an actor, he starts to show a certain level of deviance that exists within modern American society and the ignorance of many of our armed forces and patriots through describing his encounter with a young sailor he calls ‘Jack Daniels’. The sailor describes to Grey how he doesn’t have sex with his wife but love to ‘swing’ with couples. He describes how he loves to fuck women from some places but is not attracted to others from other places. In particular, Jack Daniels does not like women from Africa. Jack also reveals that he is one of a privileged few that have the honor of pushing the buttons that will launch a nuclear Armageddon upon the entire planet. In the context of the 1980’s when nuclear war seemed imminent, this is a very important detail.
Having described America, Grey goes on to tell how he landed the part and went to Thailand to shoot the film. Grey spends a lot of time talking about how important it is to seek a ‘perfect moment’ when one is in ‘exotic countries.’ He is not the only one seeking this perfection, he talks about how his cast and crew mates hire two prostitutes to keep from falling in love, about drug experiences, and about nearly ruining his relationship with his girlfriend because he is unwilling to give up and go home without having that ‘perfect moment.’
It seems important to note that Grey goes into great detail to describe how the cast and crew of The Killing Fields are all seeking this fulfillment at the expense of the Thai people. This is a probable allusion to how the events which The Killing Fields are about how the United States sought to contain communism in Vietnam through a series of military and political actions that were most definitely at the expense of the Cambodian people. Grey spends a lot of time bringing his listeners/viewers up to speed on what went down in Cambodia. He describes the illegal carpet bombing, the creation of a puppet government, the abandonment of that government, and the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who committed one of the worst genocides in the history of the human race but were supported by the United States because they were opposed to the communist Vietnamese. He describes how American servicemen seeking drugs and sex in Bangkok created the current sex trade there.
In describing the sex trade, Grey goes into excruciating detail. He describes how the women are lined up with numbers, he describes the sex shows with bananas, and he describes the details of a visit to a brothel. He describes who these women are, where they have come from, and why they are there. He points his finger not just at the audience, but also at himself, and at the film industry which is supporting this exploitation even as it seeks to show the world a different sort of exploitation. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly who Grey is pointing his finger at.
Swimming to Cambodia is long. It is Eighty-five minutes of a man sitting at a desk and describing things that at some point during the presentation will make even the numbest human squirm in his seat. It actually feels more like two-hundred and eighty-five minutes. It is agonizing. It is brilliant. There are moments when the viewer says to themselves, can this possibly go on? And it does. Each time it seems to be ready to end, it continues on to the next uncomfortable topic. Finally, when it seems to be going on to another uncomfortable segment, this is where it ends. You can’t know what to expect from Swimming to Cambodia, but you should watch it.