Sunday, January 24, 2010

Remembering the Talking Man

“Critics call me a monologist,” explained Spalding Gray. “But I refer to myself as a storyteller – no, not a storyteller. The Talking Man, that’s what I say.”At that moment, eight years ago, the acclaimed 60-year-old performer was talking on the telephone from New York’s Long Island. His minimalist one-man shows -- such as Swimming to Cambodia, filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1987 -- were wildly entertaining even though Gray would remain seated at a table. He used props for emphasis, while animatedly exploring the world’s foibles and the humor in his own neurosis.

This week Steven Soderbergh, whose 1996 Gray’s Anatomy captured a subsequent monologue, premiered a new documentary about Gray at Slamdance (an edgy Utah festival coinciding with Sundance). With home movies, interviews and performance footage, it fashions an intimate though posthumous portrait of the artist. Our 2002 conversation ricocheted from journalism to psychodrama, arguably evidence of a man struggling with the demons that drove him to commit suicide two years later. One of his challenges: With wife Kathie Russo and their three children, he had moved from a Victorian cottage in Sag Harbor to an Federal-style white clapboard structure in nearby North Haven. Gray continued to regret the decision.

GRAY: I haven’t been happy here the way I was at the other house, where I felt life was good. So, I may have moved to demolish that feeling. That’s an issue I’ve been fighting for a long time.
GREEN: Fighting?
GRAY: It’s about my mother, who killed herself at age 52. If she couldn’t have happiness, I couldn’t. But I was doing well before this.
GREEN: What changed?
GRAY: I’m still recovering from the accident in Ireland.

In June 2001, Gray was a passenger in a car hit by a minivan. He sustained a broken hip and a skull fracture that reportedly caused a brain injury. Six surgeries left him with a titanium plate in his head, a jagged scar on his face and a brace on his right leg that required walking with a cane. The consequences of the crash presumably reignited what had already been diagnosed as bipolar disorder. While still recuperating three months later, Gray was reluctantly uprooted -- on, of all 2001 dates, September 11 -- to his new abode.

GREEN: It’s clear how such terrible injuries would torment you but why living in North Haven?
GRAY: I was still on crutches then. We came here to have more space for the kids. We have a bigger yard. But now we’re a mile from town. In Sag Harbor, I liked to open the gate and be right in the village. And because we were moving at that point, I didn’t get to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center. I wish I’d been there to tell the story. Usually, I’m in the right place at the right time. It’s bollixed my creative energy...I figured out the meaning of the car accident in hindsight – only in hindsight. We had a for sale sign on the front lawn that kept disappearing. That was “a sign,” you see.
GREEN: A sign of what?
GRAY: There were signs before the accident: I saw a sick calf that couldn’t stand up and reported it to a local farmer. That same night we were hit by a veterinarian’s van. Then everything since has been referring to that. My nurse in the hospital there told me her father was from the town where the van hit me. I didn’t want to go to Ireland. I didn’t want to buy this house. It’s denying the signs. Everything’s kind of going backwards...I’d better get off the phone now. I have to take a bike ride, then we’re going to Rhode Island – which I’m dreading.
GREEN: OK, thanks for...
GRAY: Whoa! Someone’s bringing a cherry tree to replace another one we had.
GREEN: Isn’t that a good thing?
GRAY: But the first one died. That’s a bad sign. Kathie keeps doing these things without telling me. This house is driving me nuts. It’s out of my control...[to the deliveryman] It’s an apple tree? Oh, my God! Where are you putting it? Oh, my God!...[to me] There are two trees, an apple and a cherry. I’m overwhelmed. Kathie’s ordering trees without telling me.
GREEN: Maybe I should let you go?
GRAY: [to the deliveryman] How much are they?.. [to me] Oh, God. I’m going a little cuckoo. It’s too random now. The yard is too big. [to his wife] Kathie, you didn’t tell me about the apple tree! [to me] This place has turned into a nightmare.

Gray apparently jumped overboard on the Staten Island Ferry in January 2004, although his body was not retrieved from the East River for two months. The Talking Man had silenced himself.

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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