With only a desk, a glass of water, a few props and some cursory notes, Spalding Gray would sit before a live audience and tell them his story. Whether about his knowledge of death and sex before age fourteen or his mind-altering experiences in Thailand, his physical ailments or the suicide of his mother, what transpired in each monologue was half theatrics, half confession. Late in his career, when he grew tired of telling his own story, he would invite audience members on stage and interview them, hoping to uncover the germ of theatre in their unassuming candor. His role as ‘poetic journalist’ remained the same, his title as master of the monologue preceding him wherever he went.
This cottage industry of telling his story kept him busy throughout the eighties and nineties, onstage and onscreen, affording him the chance to work with some of the finest filmmakers working at the time, including Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh who both saw something cinematic in his monologues worth pursuing in that medium. Under very different circumstances, Soderbergh returns again to tell Spalding’s story, this time as a documentary in tribute to his friend that six years ago took his own life. The film, And Everything Is Going To Be Fine, never addresses the tragic event, nor does it try to consolidate a life with anything other than Spalding’s own voice. Piecing together archival footage of interviews and performances, Soderbergh has forged a new monologue, a summation of the life of Spalding in his own words (albeit rearranged).
Initially, this minimalist approach left me wanting more. One comes to know Spalding through his stories and yet the places and people he talks about are faceless anecdotes, as is his own life, outside of the poetic embellishments; what I was most interested in seeing was the life lived as a record to observe side by side with the poetic, to in some way get closer to the man. There are home video clips peppered throughout the documentary that do give this furtive glance at the life, but the bulk of the movie is Spalding articulating his experiences secondhand, and in a way our perception of him is his own; we too are trapped in his skull, his life an enigma presented as a story.
When I first learned of his suicide and the incredible nature of it, it stung. Part of me wanted this documentary to be some kind of road map to show how a person gets there, but I soon came to realize that’s another movie, the death is another movie, this is a celebration of Spalding’s life, a labor of love from a friend caringly adopting the style of its subject. His son, Forrest, even does the score. Irrespective of what I thought I wanted, by the end credits I realized this was the right movie to be made, it captured everything important about the man, where he came from, how he learned his craft, how he struggled and how he persevered. Those hoping to see a Soderbergh film, more than a Spalding performance, may be left disappointed. The director edited any trace of himself out of this one, style is non-existent, all you get is the footage, which is plentiful, rich and funny and sad and pregnant with meaning.
Hopefully the documentary will inspire more people to seek out his other monologues (my favorite, Swimming to Cambodia, needs to be reissued already!). And Everything Is Going To Be Fine is high on my list of 2010, and a definite must-see at Hot Docs.
I am unable to find a trailer for this documentary, however, for someone who doesn’t know anything about Spalding Gray, here is a trailer to Gray’s Anatomy, his second project with Soderbergh:
Master of War