Would you pay to watch someone talk at you for 90 minutes? I’m not talking about a comedian. I’m talking about a monologue. Because that’s what Monster in a Box is. Spalding Gray talks, without any cutaways, B-Roll, etc, to the camera and a barely-seen audience, for 87 minutes.
Luckily, Spalding Gray is an interesting guy and an animated speaker. The monster in the box from the title is a novel that Gray is working on. He ‘starts’ it at the beginning of his monologue and ‘finishes’ it at the end. But his speech isn’t about his novel, really. It’s about a visit to Russia, his dealings with Hollywood personalities and his ebbing and flowing emotional state.
The film, directed by documentarian Nick Broomfield, takes place entirely on a stage and utilizes theatrical lighting and sound cues for effect. The camera is certainly mobile – in fact it dollies pretty constantly for emotional punctuation – but this is certainly not a film that relies on any cinematic tools. Instead, Gray is the lone tool. You either find Gray engaging or you don’t. You either find him a great speaker, or an overly affected one. You either find humor in his dramatic pauses, or find them histrionic.
I went back and forth. I zoned out of this film plenty of times. I found myself daydreaming (probably about my own monologues and how intriguing and compelling they’d be) throughout. I’d tune back in right when the camera would change position, and strangely enough, this is how the camera really functions in Monster in a Box: it’s a wake-up device. It’s an alarm clock. It’s a reminder that we aren’t on the stage.
Not, in my opinion, the ideal tool for a camera, but Broomfield does what he can with the subject. There are a few too many evening-news-type 90 degree cuts, and Gray gets laughs where he doesn’t always deserve them, but at it’s height, the film is a throwback to campfire-storytelling where, if you close your eyes, the speaker might just be talented enough to bring you to an internal Russia that could rival any cinematic image…but only momentarily.