Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue by Spalding Gray, Francine Prose

Bill Gibron

It just sounds like the way Spalding Gray would die. His would not be a life finished by old age, or the standard natural causes. No, Gray's existence was fated to end like most of his monologues.

Life Interrupted

Publisher: Crown
Subtitle: The Unfinished Monologue
Author: Francine Prose
Price: $19.95
Display Artist: Spalding Gray, Francine Prose
Length: 256
US publication date: 2005-10
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It just sounds like the way Spalding Gray would die. His would not be a life finished by old age, or the standard natural causes. No, Gray's existence was fated to end like most of his monologues -- with a kind of closure, but with so much more life left unexplored. Anyone who's familiar with the peculiar performance artist/actor knows that his onstage stories attempted to mine epic emotions within the smallest of human moments. Whether it was filming The Killing Fields (Swimming to Cambodia), writing his one and only novel, Impossible Vacation (as described in Monster in a Box), or dealing with a potentially debilitating eye disease (Gray's Anatomy), Gray wasn't out to try and explain the purpose of being or answer the larger philosophical questions. All he wanted was to make sense out of the funny little muddle that was his world. Apparently, he fell short.

It's been over a year since Gray committed suicide, his body washing up in New York's East River. As part of the huge healing process necessary for his family and friends we are presented with Life Interrupted, an "unfinished" work by the dear departed. Not knowing its conception or creation, one would assume this to be a career ending entry, something to tie up the loose ends in Gray's artistic catalog while giving fans and the unfamiliar a chance to revel in his final musings. Sadly, that is only part of the picture painted here. Gray does get a few pages to explain his 2001 car accident (the title piece), an event while on vacation in Ireland that lead to a deepening of his already tenuous depression. There is also a short snippet about his family (The Anniversary) and a look at the metropolis he loved to love -- and hate (Dear New York City>).

Yet the 50 some odd sides that make up this material do not constitute the bulk of the book's 256 pages. Instead, longtime friend and writer Francine Prose gets a protracted introduction, and several of Gray's intimates and well wishers, most of them famous in their own right, eulogize the man as part of a closing collection of elegies and celebrations. In essence, what we have here is a full funeral in print form. Ms. Prose prepares the wake, we sit shiva as Gray gets the last word, and as he's buried in our memory, a collection of his contemporaries finds ways to wax poetic and prosaic about their much admired and missed associate. All in all, very stoic, classy, and serene -- which means it misses what made Gray so great in the first place.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating a writer with words -- it's a standard in the realm of the scribe. But Spalding Gray was more than just a collection of thoughts. It was the way he presented those ideas, the way he connected with audiences and drew them into his imaginary world that really made the difference. Reading his monologues (there are several collections out there, from film transcripts to the highly recommended Sex and Death to Age 14) you can just hear his cooling New England edge, the spry speaking style that distinguished his efforts from those of his peers. Like radio man Paul Harvey, Gray had control and cadence in how he spoke, bringing life both obvious and hidden to his otherwise well-chosen words. Anyone who wanted to understand how performance could be art just needed to see Gray live. One minute inside his vocal volleys and you could literally feel dead synapses re-firing.

Sadly, none of that is here -- not in the efforts of other writers, not in Ms. Prose's words. For her, Gray is a misunderstood man who needed re-explaining one more time. As for the individuals who stand to sing his praises, they too act as if Gray was an unknown quantity that required some defense of his otherwise indefensible actions. This is perhaps the main reason why Gray's words feel like cameos in his own collection. He was never a man to shy away from the insanity that drove his family. It was the basis for Monster in a Box, and his interesting novel Impossible Vacation. The man was literally, and literarily, an open book. There was no need to spend hundreds of pages protecting his public. They knew this side existed the entire time -- and many marveled that it hadn't conquered him before.

Then there is Gray's mini-monologue itself. Life Interrupted walks us through that fateful night when an ill-timed trip to a local restaurant lead to a near fatal collision between a delivery truck and the vehicle in which Gray was a passenger. He has a ball deconstructing the near-medieval Irish medical system, complete with a barracks of blaring TVs and a snippy drag queen attendant. As he's moved from hospital to hospital, marveling at the lack of European doctors and wondering why all this had to happen, we drift along on a cloud of acerbic candor and droll wit. And then it all stops. Just as we reach the point where Gray's about to provide that transcendent moment, that phrase or narrative phase that moves the storytelling into the arena of true art, it's all over. Gray's getting better, he's pissed and he's questioning. Unfortunately, we never get the answers.

They don't come in The Anniversary either. This beautifully written look at familial life, ending with Gray and his son whooping it up on a carousel, is both exhilarating and bittersweet. The immense amount of love Gray had for his kids comes off the pages in waves of warmth and honesty. The observational moments, catching a glimpse of the boy as his eyes engage the ephemera with that simple kind of secret joy, turns a touching piece into something very poignant and elegiac. Similarly, his note to New York, a kind of post-attack pep talk (Gray was apparently devastated by 9/11) radiates with the pure personal poetry that can only come from a man graced with a gift for words. Gray's talent was never really at issue, but Life Interrupted brings home the point that, with his passing, a great man has moved beyond us.

Had it been simpler, collecting everything and anything that he had attempted over the last few years, there would be more of a reason to rejoice at Life Interrupted's publication. Instead, the book feels superficial and surface, an effort to get to know a troubled soul that barely breaks the outer layers of his life. As a memorial, it's a well-intentioned effort, and as a celebration of Spalding Gray, the book has its memorable and affirming moments. But Gray was much more than an incomplete performance and a couple of essays. He was a man of ideas both written and spoken -- and without the oral component, Life Interrupted can only be a partial testament. Thankfully, there are enough of his completed pieces to guarantee his legacy. Life Interrupted is just what it is -- a fascinating final footnote.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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