How do you capture the life of an actor and writer who made his name performing monologues? If you’re Steven Soderbergh, you do what you do best: edit. And Everything Is Going Fine, a film about the life and art of Spalding Gray, consists entirely of footage from Gray monologues and interviews, as well as a few photographs and home movie clips, expertly and movingly compiled.
The film, just released as a Criterion Collection title, explores Gray’s life, illuminates his creative process, and explicates the art of the monologue—all while working as a Gray monologue. It’s a fitting tribute to an unusual talent, and a sobering view of a complicated man who in his engaging, comic, and affecting one-man shows seemed to have found an uneasy peace with his lifelong obsession with suicide and what he called the “chaos” of life.
From his first monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1979), a 1982 recording of which is included among the DVD extras, through monologues-turned-films Swimming to Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy (the latter also directed by Soderbergh), Gray explored his childhood, his relationships with his parents, his sexuality, the craft of acting, his travels, and his phobias, all with a candor, humor, and pathos that made his performances seem part lecture, part confession, part therapy.
Gray’s monologue format is simple and spare. A “poetic journalist”, as he called himself, he sits at a desk—upon which rest a notebook, a glass of water, and a record or cassette player—and talks to the audience. In the making-of featurette included on the DVD, editor Susan Littenberg describes how she culled and catalogued 15 hours of footage from 90 hours of monologues and interviews, which she and the director further refined over the course of two years into the final cut.
In one interview from late in his life excerpted in the film, Gray is wearing a T-shirt depicting James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and W. B. Yeats. It’s not a stretch to argue that in his career Gray exhibited qualities of all four: Joyce’s recreation of childhood, sense of place, and emphasis on revelation; Wilde’s wit and embrace of celebrity; Shaw’s dark humor and facility with multiple genres; and Yeats’s love of the mythic and epic.
“Are there stories that I don’t tell?... Yes”, Gray reveals in a clip that finds him standing in a cemetery. It’s a reminder that as revealing as his monologues are, they are structured—though not scripted—performances. And Everything Is Going Fine conveys the coherence of thematic content throughout Gray’s body of work, and underscores the artifice of the narratives he wove. Even though stitched together from at least a dozen performances and interviews recorded over the span of 20 years, the film has the effect of a single monologue. Of course, there’s a word for memories so alive to a person that they seem eternally immediate, and are lived anew every day: trauma.
It seems glib and reductive to read a lifetime of creative work as inexorably leading to Gray’s suicide in 2004, a few years after he suffered a debilitating car accident. Soderbergh wisely leaves out—and the format he’s chose for And Everything Is Going Fine makes impossible—any mention of Gray’s own demise. And yet suicide—Gray’s mother killed herself at age 52—figures centrally in the monologues, along with a series of traumatic events Gray endured at the hands of his mother, whose actions would seem cruel and sadistic except that Gray lends them an aura of dissociation in the telling that bespeaks mental illness (he also reports that she suffered two major breakdowns).
Rehearsing these stories over and over again must have been therapeutic, or compulsive, or both. “I like to tell the story of life better than I do living it”, Gray confesses in an interview. “I’m afraid of life… Everything is chance… As soon as you don’t have any form of God or meaning in your life, then you make it up as you go along”. Gray’s obsession even found its way into the figurative language he used to describe his art. “I had some feeling that I was committing artistic suicide by letting everyone get to know me so well”, Gray wrote in his journal—quoted in the essay by Nell Casey included in the Criterion DVD booklet.
The title of Soderbergh’s documentary comes from Gray’s manic description of the ranch house his father moved into after remarrying, following the death of Gray’s mother. With equal parts admiration and horror, Gray breathlessly catalogues the home’s antiseptic décor and modern conveniences, including a swimming pool and AstroTurf, and his father’s desperate attempts to maintain them. He punctuates his narrative with the incantatory refrain “and everything is going fine”.
Even though the house embodied a lifestyle Gray rejected, he could understand the compulsion to control the world reflected in his father’s behavior. Housekeeping and performance alike bring order and, perhaps, fend off the chaos for a while.