Monologist Spalding Gray, as seen in a Soderbergh tribute, illuminated life with his entertaining recollections.

Soderbergh's Spalding Gray Rings True

Max Goldberg February 18, 2011

How do you tell the story of a man who told his own for a living? This is the tricky question awaiting any would-be biographer of Spalding Gray, the celebrated monologist and memoirist who died an apparent suicide in 2004—a death often foretold but no less shocking for it. Gray’s monologues, which he performed onstage and occasionally in front of the camera, blurred the lines of performance, memoir and life to such a degree that the man himself often claimed not to be sure whether he had fictionalized certain details of his childhood recollections. A conventional biographical snapshot of his early life in Rhode Island could never measure up to Gray’s own desperately poignant dives into his memory banks of the same period. With a sharp sense of psychoanalytic catharsis, comic timing and the discursive nature of memory, Gray was able to peel away exteriority and burnish his anxieties and memories with the ring of self-evident truth.

Director Steven Soderbergh arrives at a just solution for And Everything is Going Fine on SFFS Screen this week: Give Gray the first and last word—and nearly everything in between. Soderbergh shapes the film as a tribute to Gray’s art, drawing upon midstream passages from the monologues and television interviews from Gray’s later years. Thankfully, we don’t have to put up with pundits explaining how Gray’s associative monologues anticipate Twitter feeds or hangers-on gushing about the groundbreaking Wooster Group. Soderbergh gives us the beating heart instead.

In some respects And Everything is Going Fine’s “hands off” approach is in keeping with Soderbergh’s zero-degree style—this is the same guy who attempted a non-ideological film about Che Guevara, after all—though it’s more simply understood as a fan’s notes. After Gray’s death, his widow Kathleen Russo put out word that she was interested in producing a documentary about his work. Soderbergh had cast Gray in his 1993 feature, King of the Hill, and directed the film version of Gray’s Anatomy. He took up Russo’s charge and eventually settled on fashioning the film after the form of the monologues: ninety minutes of the talking cure spread across Gray’s mature career. The finished collage lets us watch Gray turn a few more cartwheels through the intractable troubles of living.

The monologues themselves are sampled in roughly chronological order, so that we transition from the smeared video of Gray’s early downtown New York routines in the 1970s and 1980s to the crisp digital renderings of his late performances. The minimalist mise-en-scène, however, is a constant: Here Gray is again and again sitting behind the table in his flannel shirt, with only a microphone, glass of water and occasionally a miniature phonograph for accompaniment. The compression of And Everything is Going Fine means that we see Gray retrieving and refining his formative experiences—the mother’s nervous breakdown and suicide, the “language of avoidance” spoken in the Rhode Island of his youth, the twin obsessions with sex and death—over the course of several decades. The monologues always turn on disarming frankness, but the nature of his honesty and lucidity moves past the manic drowning act over time. Soderbergh and his editor Susan Littenberg intuit this broader development by drawing attention to several preferred metaphors that Gray reworked over the decades. We hear him use the phrase “glorious accident,” for instance, to describe his performance style, then his children, and finally, with bitter irony, the auto crash that left him freshly vulnerable to depression.

The secondary interviews included in And Everything is Going Fine further illuminate Gray’s gifts. He discusses the influence of the theater director Andre Gregory (perhaps best known for his part in My Dinner with Andre) and reflects upon the importance of hyperbole and innuendo to his form of “poetic journalism.”And while Gray isn’t exactly “in character” for these interviews, it’s nonetheless fascinating to see his reflexive creative drive in motion. He pounces upon details and discursive associations with gusto, trusting his unconscious to lead himself someplace more interesting and revealing than a standard-issue answer might.

This openness to the unexpected is what crucially separates Gray’s art from mere narcissism. He may have been his own subject, but he was ever curious about the inner lives of others. Some of the most poignant footage in Soderbergh’s film comes of Gray’s onstage interviews of audience members. He was a skilled interviewer—an attentive listener, unafraid of silence—and had an undeniable knack for drawing people out. Paradoxically, the very public setting grants ordinary people permission to verbalize intensely private thoughts and experiences. Gray explains that he began conducting these dialogues as a means of escaping himself, but he’s also sensitive to the way the practice addresses a lacking public sphere in American life.

Suicidal tendencies are constantly sounded out in the film’s monologue excerpts—and significantly in one of the onstage interviews—and this, combined with the loudly ironic title (culled from one of the monologues), might lead some viewers to think Soderbergh and Littenberg are overly portentous in their montage. But it would have been disingenuous for them to have evaded this core material which, following Gray’s mother’s suicide, was clearly such a spur to his creative life. And Everything is Going Fine ends with a post-accident interview in which Gray talks about his wishes for an epitaph. A far-off dog howls, and Gray the dramatist reemerges in a flash, savoring the spontaneous symbolism of this soundtrack. He makes a few offhanded quips, and the dog keeps baying. Finally he just listens, momentarily resigned to the strangeness of being alive.