Produced by Amy Hobby, Kathleen Russo, Joshua Blum; directed by Steven Soderbergh; edited by Susan Littenberg; music by Forrest Gray; with Spalding Gray. Color, 89 min. An IFC Films release, www.ifcfilms.com.
Steven Soderbergh is the auteur of choice to make a movie about Spalding Gray, whom he directed in the 1993 drama King of the Hill and more memorably in Gray’s Anatomy, the 1996 movie version of the eponymous monologue Gray had originated onstage a couple of years earlier. More interestingly, Soderbergh has a certain professional resemblance to Gray, working partly in the commercial mainstream and partly in more experimental areas where he pursues projects of personal interest—Gray’s Anatomy among them—without worrying much about the bottom line. He clearly didn’t envision multiplexes when he helped produce Godfrey Reggio’s avant-doc Naqoyqatsi (2002) and Lodge Kerrigan’s underrated Keane (2004), or when he directed the largely improvised Bubble in 2005 or the anarcho-farce Schizopolis in 1996, the same year as Gray’s Anatomy. Gray operated in a converse manner, balancing his small-audience downtown gigs with higher-profile activities like acting on Broadway, appearing in occasional Hollywood releases, doing monologues at Lincoln Center, and remaking some of them as movies directed by the likes of Soderbergh, Nick Broomfield, and Jonathan Demme.
Soderbergh’s documentary portrait of Gray’s career, And Everything Is Going Fine, contains a lot of Gray’s own spirit, starting with the ironic title, taken from a tagline in a Gray monologue. The title isn’t in impeccable taste, since longtime clinical depression, compounded in 2001 by brain injuries from a car accident, made Gray’s later years the opposite of fine, leading to an attempted suicide in 2002 and a successful one in 2004, when he jumped off a Staten Island ferry at age sixty-two. But he would probably have found this an amusingly wry name for the film; the first of his many monologues, after all, was a reflection on childhood mordantly called Sex and Death to the Age 14.
Another appropriate touch is the movie’s family-album style, relying entirely on archival, interview, and performance material with no present-day commentary or talking heads. This makes good sense, since Gray’s internalized family album was often the driving force behind his work. His greatest collaborative achievement, the memory-fueled Wooster Group trilogy Three Places in Rhode Island, made stunning use of artifacts from his early life, including photographs and tape recordings he collected over the years. His best monologues also privileged past experiences over present circumstances, giving voice to recollections, reminiscences, and fantasies that owe less to so-called reality than to the retrospection and introspection of his ruminating mind. Soderbergh follows Gray’s lead, summarizing his legacy with a cinematic time capsule.
The movie is also a time machine, jumping from period to period and place to place with an intuitive ease that shows off Soderbergh’s editing skills while also evoking Gray’s conviction, stated more than once in the film, that existence is fundamentally chaotic and meaningless, and that his own life was shaped less by forethought and planning than by accidents, coincidences, and strokes of good or bad fortune. Watching it for the first time, I assumed that the freewheeling structure reflected Soderbergh’s free associations as he ranged through the 120 hours of footage given to him by Gray’s widow, Kathleen Russo, who coproduced the film. But the better I get to know the movie, the smarter and subtler many of Soderbergh’s choices seem. At the very beginning, for instance, he intercuts Gray commencing a stage monologue with Gray giving personal information to an interviewer at a much later date, and Gray’s identical demeanor and delivery vividly show how inseparable his public and private lives became. Similar juxtapositions, connections, and contrasts throughout the film add up to an impressionistic rendering of Gray’s creative personality, dropping clues about his (extremely) complicated romantic life along the way.
Impressionism often entails a reduction of clarity and precision, however, and Soderbergh’s bio-doc has drawbacks in these areas. Only attentive viewers will be able to patch its disparate materials into a coherent account of a career that in fact had a chronological order and a steady professional logic. More specifically, the fast-moving montage has a tendency to seek energy and drive by breezing too quickly past essential elements in Gray’s artistic evolution. And Everything Is Going Fine is fine as far as it goes, giving a spirited overview of a unique artist, but it would have more immediate power and enduring value if it didn’t skimp on parts of the story that many Gray admirers will sorely miss.
The treatment of the Wooster Group is a case in point. Gray’s voice on the soundtrack briefly sketches his work with this extraordinary ensemble, illustrated by publicity photos from a handful of productions. But the company was far more important in Gray’s artistic growth than this quick run-through implies, extending all the way back to its prehistory as the Performance Group, directed by Richard Schechner, one of the great radicals of midcentury American theater. Gray joined the company in 1970, met and moved in with Schechner’s associate Elizabeth LeCompte, and started working with her and a few friends in experimental improvisations that eventually jelled into the first part of Three Places in Rhode Island. Gray’s celebrated solo career sprang directly from artistic leaps made in this 1975-78 trilogy, in which Gray the actor (coached by LeCompte the director) discovered the secrets of playing Gray the character, and then of playing Gray the actor as a character: in Sakonnet Point he enacted fragments of his past; in Rumstick Road he spoke many of his lines to the audience; and in Nayatt School he spoke extemporaneously to the audience for the first time, an advance so meaningful to him that in early performances I saw his fingers visibly trembling with nervousness and excitement. He took the final step a year later, walking onto the stage alone, without a script, and simply talking. The first performance drew about ten people, including me, but something big was definitely brewing.
The film features extensive archival material provided by Gray's widow, Kathleen Russo
I describe this not because any possible movie about Gray needs to include it, but because any movie designed (like this one) to recap his career and explore his originality should have something significant to say about when it all began and how it all evolved. I also wish Soderbergh touched on two intriguing problems that are implicit in his subject. The first: how do the distinctive properties of theater and film play into the esthetics of a medium-jumper like Gray—do his monologues have different effects on the stage and at the movies, and if so, how useful are the performance clips in this very documentary? The second: after showing that you’re leagues ahead of your time, how do you stay out there without merely repeating yourself?
Gray recognized early in the game that his monologues risked devolving into sit-down comedy routines, and this was an accurate foreboding, since the structures and even the language of his pieces were often pretty well frozen in place by the time opening night arrived. He made a bold effort to keep things spontaneous in an early monologue called India and After (America), working with a colleague who would pitch a random word to start him talking, ring a bell to stop him after an arbitrary amount of time, then pitch another word to get him going again, usually on a different topic. He soon abandoned this experiment, devising a more conservative route to aleatory theater—letting audience members do the talking while he interviewed them on the stage—that served him for years. These were interesting tactics, but the attractions of reliable material always pulled him back to anecdotes and patterns he’d worked over in notebooks, conversations, and private musings. Soderbergh gives a glimpse of Gray’s tussle with the muse of audience-pleasing predictability, showing a short clip from India and After (America), but by itself this doesn’t shine much light.
These and other missing links are important to note because for all its high-grade entertainment value, And Everything Is Going Fine thoughtfully raises an array of issues related to performance, theater, film, and language, and they would be all the more fascinating if Soderbergh went into them a bit more attentively. Then again, I might be ascribing too much seriousness to a documentary intended simply as a tribute to an admired colleague and companion. Viewing the picture from that angle, I salute Soderbergh for making an engaging, absorbing portrait that will spread the word about Gray’s unique achievements far beyond the following he built when he was alive. Beyond the personal interest this holds for me (Spalding was a friend for many years), keeping Gray’s name and accomplishments alive is vital at a time when artistic innovators start fading from public consciousness the moment they leave the media spotlight behind.
Larger cultural matters aside, I want to close with a few words about the emotionally richest moment in And Everything Is Going Fine, which comes at the very end, when Soderbergh’s directorial hand is more evident than at any previous point. The film’s last portion sensitively sketches Gray’s final active period before his death. We watch him leave the stage after an audience-interviewing show, looking worn and tired, supported by the crutches he needed after his near-fatal car crash. Then we move to the sunny yard of his Long Island home, where he and an unseen interviewer (probably Barbara Kopple, who shot footage of him there) have been discussing the accident, the surgery he needs, and the prospect of using these as grist for a future monologue. Talk turns to deeper things, and Gray says with bemusement, “I was always worried that my epitaph, which I will never see, will read, ‘Spalding Gray, who found a niche, making a living by talking about himself.’…But I hope that it would say, ‘talking about himself and his loved ones and the people he encountered in his travels.’” Unlike a minimalist or “navel-gazer” in Samuel Beckett’s mold, he explains, he sees himself as a chronicler of the many-faceted world in which he lives.
Gray on stage in Swimming to Cambodia
While he’s making his remark about the epitaph, a dog starts howling somewhere nearby. Gray pauses and says with a smile, “The dog is already howling for the dead Spalding Gray.” A few moments later he starts listening more intently to the howling, clearly transfixed by the eerie sound. “The lamentation,” he finally says, his last words of the film. The camera slowly zooms to a close-up of his face, eyes closed, expression cryptic, thoughts going God knows where. And the image fades to white. This is spellbinding cinema. I think it will bring tears to the eyes of many people who never before heard of Spalding Gray.
David Sterritt is Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and film critic at Tikkun and RobinHoodRadio.com.