Monologuist has the last word
By Dan Kois
Friday, January 28, 2011
How else would we begin? There’s a chair, a table, a pen, a glass of water. The man enters the frame and sits down, the chair creaking as he settles his weight. We hear a smattering of audience applause, and the man looks up: He has a face. He’s approaching middle age, with a swoop of graying hair. The microphone crackles as he attaches it to his plaid shirt: He has a voice. He takes a sip of water, and he tells us a story.
The man is Spalding Gray, the monologuist who parlayed self-consciousness and a ruthless eye for detail into one of the more intriguing theatrical careers in recent memory. Most famous for his monologue “Swimming to Cambodia” — a fantasia on war and WASPy discontent, inspired by playing a very small role in 1984’s “The Killing Fields” — Gray told stories onstage (and, occasionally, on film), exploring the terrors and pleasures of the modern world.
So how do you make a documentary about a man who already told his life story, over and over again? If you’re Steven Soderbergh, the eclectic and intuitive director, you make the most of the gift Gray’s given you. And so for “And Everything Is Going Fine,” Soderbergh — who in 1996 made a film, “Gray’s Anatomy,” out of one of Gray’s monologues — and his heroic editor, Susan Littenberg, sifted through 120 hours of footage to create, in essence, a final Spalding Gray monologue.
After that beginning — the chair, the water, the story, a ritual familiar to anyone lucky enough ever to see Gray perform — Spalding Gray tells us the story of his life, from beginning to end, in clips from dozens of taped monologues, plays, movies and TV spots ranging from MTV’s forgotten talk show “Mouth to Mouth” to a Charlie Rose appearance. As the Spaldings we see toggle from old to young and back again, the story the Spaldings tell follows the course of his life.
Gray grew up in Rhode Island and fell in love with performing early. “Some people are simply born actors,” he says. “It’s an ontological condition.” He joined New York’s seminal Wooster Group in the 1970s, and his travels with the company yielded material for many of his first monologues. By the 1990s, he was famous enough that “Saturday Night Live” could parody him in a sketch called “Monsters of Monologue,” although it’s likely that most “SNL” viewers weren’t sure quite what was going on.
The specter of Gray’s death is ever-present in “And Everything Is Going Fine.” Indeed, one of the film’s most charged moments is an early monologue in which Gray describes his discovery, as a teenager, of the Freudian concept of the unconscious. “I didn’t know there was a whole part of me missing,” he says, with his usual good humor, the darkness lingering just underneath. “I didn’t know there was this ‘un.’ ” Worried that his unconscious housed the self-destructive aspects of his personality, he refused to sleep near an open window, for fear the “un” would take over and cause him to throw himself out.
But Soderbergh’s film never tips its hand as to the sad end of Spalding Gray’s story. (The movie, probably safely, presumes the audience’s foreknowledge; if you’re not already interested in Spalding Gray, it’s hard to imagine you’d ever find your way in.) No flashback reminds us of his mother’s suicide in 1967. No talking head connects the dots between Gray’s depression and the near-fatal car accident that ruined his health. And no onscreen caption tells us that on a cold winter’s afternoon in 2004, Gray apparently jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.
Instead, we get a final clip of Gray talking, followed by home-movie footage of Gray as a baby, accompanied by an elegiac song (performed by his teenage son, Forrest). Thus Spalding Gray himself has the last word on his life, something this exacting storyteller would surely have demanded. It’s an elegant end to a brilliantly conceived documentary, one with uncommon respect for — and understanding of — its subject’s life and art.