Friday, March 04, 2011

Spalding, Gone - 'And Everything Is Going Fine'

Most documentaries - even the good ones - will have a few moments of backstory in a formal ahem we're going to be exploring something here people sort of way to set up the next 90 minutes of programming. There's nothing wrong with that, and when properly applied it provides the context required to give the story it's due.

You have to be brave, utterly self-involved and indifferent to questioning masses to break that particular mold and it makes perfect sense that Steven Soderbergh has taken that approach to his Spalding Gray documentary And Everything Is Going Fine. Gray was brave, self-involved and indifferent to conventional audience expectations to his work (a few film ventures aside- he showed up in Beaches briefly, Garry Marshall being about as far from the Wooster Group as Bette Midler was from August Strindberg). I loved every frame of Soderbergh's film while not knowing if I can recommend it to anyone who's not familiar with Gray's life. It's all there, if you know how rather than where, to look; the Christian Scientist mother and WASPy upbringing in Providence, Rhode Island, the flailing of a young actor and the formation of the monologues that became his forum. It wouldn't be fair to call them his trademark; there are lots of monologists, few have ever nailed the form as honestly (often to a fault) as Spalding Gray.

If you need a précis, the film might not be for you. This doesn't mean that Soderbergh hasn't tried to make you welcome, it just means that the big finish occurs offscreen and it's that big finish that breaks the heart of every Gray afficinado who watches the film through watering eyes. The journey's more important than the increasingly inevitable destination; Gray's eventual fate was a motif that ran through all of his work, and seeing him succumbing to a not-quite-defined something near the end of the film is wrenching for everyone who knows how it comes to a close. Those in the know, know it. Those who aren't won't hear it from me.

If this all reads as overly cryptic, it's intended with respect. Soderbergh's tactic is to catch Gray at different points in his career through grainy video, shaky archival recordings and glossy network profiles that show him addressing the same points and memories from his life at different times in his life. Spalding in the early 80s might discuss his childhood backed up by a clip from Spalding in 2004 just after his accident in Ireland. It plays without the standard intro or narration or any additional context for those who don't know the basics, but even the uninitiated will be able to appreciate the wit and imagination of a born storyteller who transcended that particular cliché. By the time the clips become more recent and unrelentingly telling about his state of mind, it's impossible not to be struck with a sense of loss. Gray had a lot to give, a great deal of it screamingly funny and quietly, wrenchingly sad. It didn't have to end the way it did, but it's impossible to say that the seeds weren't planted a very long time ago.

I'm the perfect audience for And Everything is Going Fine. I was an actor when I saw Gray's first filmed monologue Swimming to Cambodia back in the 80s, I followed every cinematic and printed work he ever produced. A paramour in university told me once that I carried myself like Gray when I was acting and I took it as a great compliment, rather than worrying about the fact that I should be, you know, acting, rather than riffing on Spalding Gray. I knew everything before sitting down to watch Soderbergh's take on it all and still found myself in tears by the ending. I had an irrational, gut-response to it, not knowing if I wanted to horde every copy and distribute only to the Gray-faithful, or to hand it out at streetcorners along with copies of Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box and Sex & Death to the Age 14.

I've decided to take a third option: if you don't know Spalding Gray from a hole in the ground, see the film and Google him after the fact. If you're a Gray admirer, watch it and prepare to see it all melt away again. Detractors are as welcome as well- you'll get to see the worst of Gray displayed alongside the best without a narrator or talking heads trying to justify it all. Viewers of all stripes are welcome to take away from it what they will. For my part, I simply felt shaken. Come back Spalding. All's forgiven. We miss you.

- March, 2011


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