Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nothing New Here: And Everything is Going Fine

Spalding Gray: And Everything is Going Fine (2010)
I was lucky enough to see the late monologist Spalding Gray on three different occasions when he came to Toronto with his shows, Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999), where he wittily expounded on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the pains of aging to becoming a father late in life. (I still remember with relish his encounter with the elderly Richard M. Nixon in a doctor's office and his initial thought that someone was wearing a Nixon mask in the waiting room.) His monologues were fast-paced, insightful and cleverly laid out, especially considering that they were in effect just Gray usually sitting behind a desk and talking for 90 minutes or so. And yet, despite his frankness on stage, particularly about his mother’s suicide and his own thoughts and worries that he, too, would end up doing the same, his finally ending his life in early 2004, at age 62, still came as a shock to me. I figured, as I’m sure so many other people did too, that Gray was successfully utilizing his monologues as a therapeutic catharsis to help keep his demons at bay. And truth be told, for many years, he did. Of course, no one could have foreseen the 2001 car accident in Ireland, which left him with physical and mental injuries and eventually drove him to the permanent despair that is suicide. Critics at Large’s Susan Green got a taste of what was troubling Gray when she interviewed him in 2002.

Last year, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Ocean’s Eleven), who had cast Gray in King of the Hill (1993), playing ironically enough a suicide victim, and directed the film adaptation of Gray’s Anatomy (1996), premièred his documentary on Spalding Gray, entitled And Everything is Going Fine at the Slamdance Film Festival. It’s now in general release, but sad to say, it likely won’t please Gray’s legion of fans, or Soderbergh’s for that matter.

Admittedly, it is a tricky endeavour making a documentary on a performer who has already revealed pretty much everything of consequence in his life, from his affairs to his writer's block, to the public at large. In that light, what more could you add to the saga of Spalding Gray? It turns out, not much.

Spalding Gray
Soderbergh’s approach is to simply let Spalding speak, utilizing film footage of clips from his monologues, interviews done with him and Gray’s own interviews with some of his audience members and, notably, with his father. There are no others speaking on what made Gray tick – though his son Forrest composed the lovely score for the film. Gray’s monologues are generally excerpted in the order that he did them and his interviews, though not necessarily filmed chronologically, mostly touch on his life in a straight path. But that chronological arc, which might seem a logical idea for a film, fails to do justice to its subject, on or off the stage. Just when you’re getting into one of his hilarious riffs, the clips ends, abruptly returning the viewer to Gray as an interview subject or jumping to a different monologue. The film never allows Gray to build up a compelling head of steam when he seizes on a specific idea or tells a lengthy story, something I always appreciated when I saw him perform live. Nor are the short interviews satisfying, though random comments – Gray’s observation that “I like telling the story of life better than I do living” – still have the ability to startle.

Obviously, Soderbergh felt a responsibility to get at what made Gray tick, but good intentions do not necessarily make for good movies. They didn’t when Soderbergh helmed Gray’s Anatomy, a caustic examination of Gray’s interest in alternative medicines. Unfortunately, the director decided, for some unexplained reason, to clutter the film up with unnecessary special effects and fractured cinematographic imagery, which just got in the way of Gray’s words. Soderbergh also shortened the stage production by ten minutes, which in Gray’s tightly scripted monologues is pretty damaging. Of the three feature-length Gray adaptations, Gray’s Anatomy was the least of the three, after Nick Broomfield’s okay take on Monster in a Box (1991), the most straightforward look at Gray’s mother’s tragic life and death and Jonathan Demme’s perfect Swimming to Cambodia (1987), which chronicled Gray’s humourous adventures filming Roland Joffe’s Cambodia drama The Killing Fields (1984). (HBO’s 1988 Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure, directed by Thomas Schlamme, is only an hour long.) It’s too bad that And Everything Is Going Fine isn’t better, as it’s making the rounds in the year when Gray, had he lived, would be turning 70. If you don’t know Gray’s revelatory, absorbing work, check out Demme’s film or Broomfield’s movie. Ultimately, Soderbergh’s documentary brings nothing new to the table.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is currently teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute. For more information click on to the Ryerson catalogue

1 comment:

  1. I would have loved to have seen him live. I agree, I think Swimming to Cambodia is my fave. Great storyteller. I will probably watch this film just because it's about him. I'm curious, too, because NOW gave it a rave review.