Navigate / search

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).

Your field guide to the Ransom Center

By Richard Oram

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.

Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.

The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.

Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.

The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.

Don DeLillo and David Mamet honored by PEN

By Alicia Dietrich

Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.
Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.

Two writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center received 2010 PEN Literary Awards.

Novelist Don DeLillo received the 2010 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. He is the author of 15 novels, 4 plays, and a number of short stories and essays. The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction goes to a distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career, which places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.

Author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and film director David Mamet received the 2010 PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for a Master American Dramatist. Mamet is the author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award. The PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama recognizes a master American dramatist whose literary achievements are vividly apparent in the rich and striking language of his or her work.

“The fact that the archives of Don DeLillo and David Mamet, two of PEN’s literary award winners this year, are at the Ransom Center is a reminder of the extraordinary collections at the Center,” said Steve Isenberg, executive director of the PEN American Center, a member of the Ransom Center’s Advisory Council, and a former visiting professor of humanities at The University of Texas at Austin. “It’s wonderful that these collections are readily available to scholars, students, faculty, and the public to see firsthand.”

Read a Q&A with DeLillo on PEN’s website.

David Foster Wallace’s library: Dog ears, coffee rings, duct tape, and heavy markings

By Jacqueline Muñoz

Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Jacqueline Muñoz, librarian at the Ransom Center, cataloged more than 300 books from David Foster Wallace’s archive. Here, she writes about her experience working with the collection and her personal response to Wallace’s work.

I didn’t think much of Infinite Jest in the beginning. My impression of David Foster Wallace’s writing was that it was wordy and unfocused with some seriously flawed characters. Gradually I settled into his use of language, which is quite impressive, and finally at the Boston AA section, I was hooked—certainly on the plot, but even more so on the man behind the prose. All at once, it was clear the length of the story and ambiguity of the characters was Wallace’s vehicle for articulating how unforgiving it is to be human, and how, though various generations may seem vastly different on the surface, they struggle internally with the same issues. I thought, this man is a genius; I want to know him better. So, I was thrilled to find out the Ransom Center would be acquiring his archive, especially given the description about the extensive annotations to his books.

Even then, I was not prepared for what we received. Of the more than 300 titles in his collection, there are maybe 10 or 15 that are not annotated—not simply with underlined passages but ample and personally revealing margin notes. The library basically falls into two categories: novels/stories he taught in his literature classes and books for use in research and self-analysis. Finishing Infinite Jest, I came away with a lot of questions about the origin of some of the characters, as well as theories about the story itself. I think the items in his library, which feel very much like journal entries the way he marked them up, provide some answers.

Looking at his collection, one can see that Wallace was undoubtedly a highly intelligent man: a philosopher, mathophile, physics buff, grammarian, pop-fiction reader, lit professor, creative writer, and spiritual seeker. He didn’t merely own these books; he digested them. Cover to cover there are handwritten notes and vocabulary words; he dog-eared pages, annotated the most pertinent passages, and even used the tomes as coffee mug coasters and phone conversation doodle pads. Through his books, one gains a sense of him on a personal, human level—his struggles, unpretentiousness, sense of humor, diligent research skills, and devotion to masterful writing. It’s almost as if he’s still teaching and sharing.

Additional David Foster Wallace materials at the Ransom Center

By Megan Barnard

The David Foster Wallace papers have been cataloged and are now available for study in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Since last March when the Center announced its acquisition of the papers, a few small collections have arrived that complement the archive acquired from Wallace’s Estate.

Just weeks after we announced the acquisition, the Ransom Center was contacted by Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor of American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). Wallace was a member of the AHD usage panel, a group of individuals AHD consulted about issues related to usage and grammar. Each year, AHD sends a survey or “usage ballot” of questions to its board members—asking, for example, the acceptable use of specific words—and the responses influence how AHD defines appropriate usage in its dictionaries. Wallace, whose facility with language was exceptional, was enthusiastic about serving on the AHD usage panel, and his survey responses demonstrate how seriously he took his role. Though most of the questions were designed so that they could be answered with a mere check mark, the six usage ballots that Wallace completed are covered with his comments and questions. AHD sent the Ransom Center copies of David Foster Wallace’s usage ballots, and a few sample pages can be seen in the slideshow above.

Within days of hearing from AHD about their Wallace materials, the Ransom Center received a call from Jay Jennings, the former editor of Tennis Magazine, who in 1996 commissioned Wallace to write an article about the U.S. Open (published as “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”). The editor had a file of corrected proofs and correspondence related to the article that he wanted to contribute to the archive. These papers provide a wonderful example of how involved Wallace was in the editorial process. Wallace had warned the editor that he would be a difficult editee, but the papers demonstrate the contrary. Though Wallace’s comments on the proof pages are often assertive, they are equally good-natured, dotted throughout with smiley faces, and oftentimes showing his humor. A sample page can be seen in the above slideshow.

Both of these collections were donated to the Ransom Center by individuals who admired Wallace’s work and felt compelled to make a contribution to his archive. This generosity of spirit is characteristic of the enthusiastic and very personal responses the Ransom Center has received from a number of devoted readers of Wallace’s works over the past several months, readers who wanted to give something back to the community in honor of a writer they admired deeply.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

David Foster Wallace archive now open

By Alicia Dietrich

Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
The archive of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), author of Infinite Jest (1996), The Broom of the System (1987), Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and numerous collections of stories and essays, is now open at the Harry Ransom Center. A finding aid for the collection and an inventory of Wallace’s library can be accessed online.

The Ransom Center acquired Wallace’s archive last year. The collection is made up of 42 boxes and is divided into three main sections: works, personal and career-related materials and copies of works by Don DeLillo. The works section covers the period between 1984 and 2006 and includes material related to Wallace’s novels, short stories, essays and magazine articles. The personal and career materials section covers 1971 through 2008 and includes juvenilia, teaching materials and business correspondence. Most of the correspondence in the collection is between Wallace and his editors and is related to his work. The third, and smallest, section includes photocopy typescripts of three works by Don DeLillo, one of which, Underworld, contains extensive handwritten annotations by Wallace.

View some teaching materials from the archive.

The Ransom Center commemorates the opening of the archive with public readings of Wallace’s work by writers and actors tonight at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) in the university’s Jessen Auditorium in Homer Rainey Hall. The event, which is co-sponsored by “American Short Fiction” and Salvage Vanguard Theater, will be webcast live.

Writer Wilson Harris knighted

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of 'The Ghost of Memory' by Wilson Harris
Cover of 'The Ghost of Memory' by Wilson Harris
United Kingdom–based Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He is the author of the works Fetish (1951), Eternity to Season (1954), Palace of the Peacock (1969), and The Ghost of Memory (2006).

Harris, born in 1921, was influenced in his writing by his personal experiences with the complex Guyanese landscape and multi-racial culture. His novels, known for their abstract and experimental nature, are full of metaphors and complex symbolism, with an intermingling of time, reality, imagination, memory, and dreams; they have been called “psychical expeditions.” Harris won the Guyana National Prize for Literature in 1987 and 2002.

The Wilson Harris collection, which was acquired by the Ransom Center in batches between 1970 and 2007, includes handwritten manuscripts, typescripts, page proofs, and reviews for several of his books, as well as correspondence, primarily letters written by Harris to poet and literary critic Michael Thorpe.

Fans donate $30,000 to preserve "Gone With The Wind" dresses

By Margaret Rine

Film Curator Steve Wilson and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, with the original curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’
Film Curator Steve Wilson and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, with the original curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’

Thanks to the generous donations of more than 600 supporters from around the world, the Ransom Center is delighted to announce that the fundraising goal to preserve the Gone With The Wind costumes has been reached. From Alaska to Florida, from Australia to Ireland, the response to this project has been enthusiastic and widespread. Although we knew there were legions of devoted Gone With The Wind fans, the overwhelming concern and support for these costumes provides tangible evidence of the power of movies to strike a deep and lasting chord in our collective consciousness. We deeply appreciate the many calls, letters, and emails, which further bolster our commitment to ensuring that the costumes from the David O. Selznick collection will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As Gone With The Wind costume designer Walter Plunkett had remarked, “I don’t think it was my best work or even the biggest thing I did… But that picture, of course, will go on forever, and that green dress, because it makes a story point, is probably the most famous costume in the history of motion pictures.”

To those of you who contributed to the project, thank you for helping to preserve these iconic Hollywood treasures. We look forward to seeing you at our exhibition in 2014 celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind.

To stay up to date on the preservation efforts please sign up for eNews.

Grant will allow restoration of four Jorge Prelorán films

By Margaret Rine

Jorge Preloran accepting the International Cinema Artist award from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2008. Photograph by Juan Tallo. Image courtesy of the Human Studies Film Archives.
Jorge Preloran accepting the International Cinema Artist award from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2008. Photograph by Juan Tallo. Image courtesy of the Human Studies Film Archives.
The Ransom Center recently received a grant from the Tinker Foundation, based in New York City, to restore and make accessible four films by Jorge Prelorán. The series, “The Argentine Gaucho Today,” resides in the Edward Larocque Tinker collection at the Ransom Center.

Born to an Argentine father and Irish-American mother, Prelorán held both American and Argentine citizenship. He grew up in Buenos Aires, studied architecture and then film at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1961, began filming at the University of Tucumán, and moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to teach at UCLA until he retired in 1994. Prelorán died in 2009.

A cultural icon in Argentina, Prelorán donated his archive to the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution in 2008. He is celebrated for having developed a cinematic genre known as ethnobiography.

What makes this grant special is that the Tinker Foundation provided the original grant to Prelorán to produce the films in 1961. “The Tinker Foundation has come full circle in that it supported the creation of the films, and now it is making certain that the films will continue to benefit students and scholars interested in documentary film well into the future,” said Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Ransom Center. “Not only will students and scholars be able to study the films at the Ransom Center, but through our collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution, they will also be available for exhibitions and dissemination via video, television, and the Internet,” he added.

Prelorán’s interest in documentary film production was fueled by work in Hollywood as an assistant director for documentary films and television. In 1961, he received an opportunity to further develop his documentary talents: a $35,000 grant from the Tinker Foundation to make a film on gauchos in Argentina. In an interview, Prelorán recalled, “With $8,000, a borrowed jeep, and seven hours of film, I set out with Horst Cemi, also a UCLA graduate, to discover my country, Argentina.”

The result was not one film, but a four-film series on the gauchos found in representative cattle raising areas.

Among his many honors, Prelorán received the Golden Astor award for life achievement at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina (2005) and was also declared a Distinguished Citizen by the City of Buenos Aires (2005). In 2008, Prelorán was awarded the International Cinema Artist award by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. A feature-length Argentine documentary film on Prelorán’s life’s philosophy, Huellas y Memoria (Footsteps and Memory), was released in 2009.

Learn more about the Ransom Center’s film collections.