And Everything is Going Fine
(IFC Films; US theatrical: 10 Dec 2010 (Limited release); 2009)
Spalding Gray was an enigma, a man struggling within a private Hell that he frequently shared with a captive, captivated public audience. He wasn’t so much an actor as a re-actor, someone who took every facet of his often shattered life experience and channeled it into terrific, telling monologues. Thanks in part to wonderful word of mouth and a desire to put his unique artform on film, Gray went from stage cult figure to the father of filmed performance pieces. Influencing the likes of Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo, he gave the one man showcase a solid commercial footing, the only difference being that, unlike his brethren in fiction, he dealt in the all too real aspects of a troubled everyday existence.
So when it was reported that Gray had gone missing in January of 2004, the news was less concerning than sadly inevitable. Plagued by depression and his own oblique way of transposing said ailment into an eloquent irrationalization, he had hinted at suicide often. It was almost like a punchline to his purpose. That he finally went through with it became the kind of senseless self-fulfilling prophecy that only the most confused can consider. In his absence he left a family, a legitimate legacy, and a lots of questions that no one can seemingly answer- even the detailed and verbose Gray himself.
So instead of mourning the loss, friend and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has allowed the monologist to, once again, speak for himself. And Everything Is Going Fine may not be a probing piece of investigative documentation, but it does do a fine job of celebrating a complicated and creative conundrum. Using stock footage, old interview clips, newly discovered stage showcases, and the occasional home movie, Gray’s entire life is analyzed, from his troubled youth with his psychotic Christian Scientist mother to the sudden stardom that came with Swimming to Cambodia. What we learn is that Gray’s purpose was part of an ongoing dialogue, an endless conversation between the man and his mind that almost always bled over into his evocative form of entertainment.
Make no mistake about it - Gray is a great storyteller. He has that knack, that Paul Harvey-like lilt and way with wording that, while seemingly simple, betrays a bounty of unseen subtext. Even when discussing a homosexual experience or his time in porn, he clings to a cadence that combines an off the cuff sincerity with a weird, almost stream of consciousness novelty. Though well rehearsed from meticulous outlines, Gray’s performances are never mechanical. They bend and stretch, circling their subject matter before striking out to make their particular points. Robbed of their complete context, moments from Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, and It’s a Slippery Slope can sound random and disconnected. But Soderbergh is both illustrating his talent and deconstructing the man, showing how the mere speaking of words can turn into something quite special.
For his part, Gray is the very embodiment of the walking wounded. When he talks, there always seems to be a suppressed sigh in the back of his throat. He comes across as a man who’s seen it all, tried it all, and oddly enough, regretted it all, from taking the stage in college to getting his mistress pregnant. The tail end of And Everything Is Going Fine, describing the moment when he discovered he would become a father (and throw his relationship with longtime gal pal Renée Shafransky into utter turmoil) is heartbreaking, the man suddenly slapped with issues he never thought he’d confront. Even worse, we learn of the car accident during a trip to Ireland, a freak event that would trigger Gray’s downward spiral into uncontrollable, crippling depression.
Indeed, there are basically three parts to Gray’s story - before fame, after fame, and after the accident. Each one offers a kind of completed arc into what the man was at the time. Prior to his success, he was your basic bohemian, desperate to avoid the responsibilities of an adult while recognizing the value (financially…socially…sexually) such maturity offered. When a performance in LA leads to a chance to film his work, Gray suddenly skyrockets into the public eye, a place he’s both comfortable and confrontational with. Listening to him talk to correspondents from EPK level entities like E! News and Entertainment Tonight is similar to a college professor dressing down a coed. He’s as amused with the course of questions as he is obtuse in his often surreal responses.
But once we get to the latter part of his life, at the point where “monologist” is not longer a questionable oddball career choice, Gray becomes undone. Soderbergh does a great job of managing the mania, showing how his performances turned, from confessional to comic, less jaded and more joke oriented. Even better, the one-on-one talks uncover a person unsettled and unsane. It’s stunning to see someone known for their gift of gab to actually struggle for something to say. And Everything is Going Fine includes snippets of his final work, the sad and forlorn Life Interrupted, a title that’s just a tad too prophetic. By keeping the camera solely on Gray, but never once giving experts, pals, and pundits a chance to wax on about their icon, the portrait is not perfect, but very penetrating indeed.
Such a flawed overview is what makes And Everything Is Going Fine so exceptional. As with all of his art, the documentary is filtered through Gray’s viewpoint exclusively which makes the secrets that much more telling and the lies all the more painful. We can see the man deteriorating, turning from fresh faced novelty to burnt out victim of his own surreal celebrity in the span of 90 minutes, and yet there is never a sense of purposelessness here. Gray is seen as someone always conflicted, trying to find a pathway through a perplexing, hampered heredity. That Soderbergh decided to commemorate this man in such an unusual yet appropriate way is par for the personal course here. And Everything is Going Fine may, again, be an incomplete portrait, but it is a thoroughly arresting one for sure.