Cinema of the Wolf: The Mystery of Marketa Lazarová
By Tom Gunning
Flashback: Ingmar Bergman
By Peter Cowie
Safety Last!: High-Flying Harold
By Ed Park
A Series of Flashbacks
By Peter Cowie
At first, we see only a wooden table and a chair on a stage. The scratchy video recording skips and jumps a bit, giving the viewer a hint of the history; this is raw footage shot in 1982. The happy murmur of the unseen audience suggests a large crowd is awaiting the performance. A man walks onstage—dressed plainly in a plaid shirt and jeans—and applause rises up. He puts a glass of water down on the table. He offers a quick, offhand thanks, as if he were slightly embarrassed to find himself there. He pulls a spiral notebook out from a drawer in the table. He places it in front of him, takes a sip of water, and looks skyward while summoning his thoughts. He looks out on his audience—now with an open, direct expression—and he begins to tell a story.
This is the opening scene of Steven Soderbergh’s admirably unadorned documentary about Spalding Gray, And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)—but it is also a scene from the start of Gray’s career as a solo performer. It captures a charged and radical moment in the history of theater. Until Gray appeared onstage as himself—“Using myself to play myself,” as he once put it—the monologue was a form in which actors, appearing alone, typically played multiple characters, such as the theatrical portraits that Ruth Draper premiered in 1920 or the ones that Lily Tomlin brought to the stage in her 1977 Broadway show Appearing Nitely. These performers were restless onstage, roaming from one end to the other while inhabiting their characters. But Gray sat quietly throughout—he hardly ever left that table with the glass of water and his notebook—and spoke nakedly about his life. He did this for the first time on April 20, 1979, at the age of thirty-seven, when he debuted his monologue (he preferred the spelling monolog) consisting of memories from his early life, called Sex and Death to the Age 14—the very one he performs at the beginning of And Everything Is Going Fine.
“There was a big audience for Sex and Death (over seventy), which sort of threw me off, but I loved it—perhaps I played more for the laughs,” Gray wrote in his journal at the time. “I don’t know. I had some feeling that I was committing artistic suicide by letting everyone get to know me so well.” This was the beginning of a high-wire act that Gray would nimbly—and yet always with great uncertainty—maintain for the rest of his career. From that point forward, for larger and larger audiences, he would artfully offer a sliver of his life as confessional theater—“The well-told partial truth to deflect the private raw truth,” as he once described it—only to grow increasingly anxious about the emotional consequences he would suffer for having done so. He worried that he’d made a dubious trade-off—surrendering a sense of privacy or unselfconsciousness for “minor celebrity”—wondering if he’d become a “neurotic wind-up doll,” trotting his anxieties out for laughs. But also for absolution: As much as Gray wrung his hands, calculating and recalculating what he’d sacrificed for fame, he recognized that this was an art form wholly suited to his talents and that he needed the audience. He was a more fulfilled person with this constant and consoling witness to his life.
Soderbergh’s decision to tell the story of Gray’s life through a continuous cycle of preexisting footage, without relying on other conventions of documentary narrative—interviews with family and friends; long-held shots of still photographs accompanied by sonorous voice-over; conversations with historians and academics placing the subject in a broader context—was an excellent one. Gray left behind such a trove of footage and personal insights that when skillfully and compassionately edited together, as Soderbergh has done (with editor Susan Littenberg), the narrative that emerges is more profound than anything anyone else could have supplied. “I wanted to do something that was as specific and distinctive as what he did,” Soderbergh has explained. “That’s why there is no attempt to contextualize this for people who don’t know who he is. It’s not for the uninitiated . . . But I also felt that, given its intent—which was to let him tell his own story—this was the best way to do it.”
It is characteristic of Soderbergh to upend convention and form as a filmmaker, but in this case, his choices seem also to reflect his personal relationship with Gray. Soderbergh met the actor when he cast him in his 1993 movie King of the Hill, after seeing Jonathan Demme’s 1987 film version of Gray’s iconic monologue Swimming to Cambodia, a blend of personal and political history chronicling both Gray’s experiences acting in The Killing Fields (1984) and the Cambodian genocide the film depicts. Soderbergh had also admired Gray’s one and only novel, Impossible Vacation. In 1996, they collaborated again; this time, Soderbergh shot the movie version of Gray’s Anatomy, a monologue primarily about the deterioration of vision in Gray’s left eye. As a result of their friendship, Soderbergh is able to portray a deeper sense of the varying sides of Gray at play in his character and life—and the conflicts they created in him.
Anybody who has seen even one of Gray’s monologues will know some version of his life story. There is, in fact, a personal trajectory that Gray set forth in all his narratives—in performance, in interviews, and in his journals. He was an academically challenged boy, dyslexic and disinterested, growing up in Barrington, Rhode Island, with his two brothers. His father was a distant, formidable figure, while his mother was a warm, ebullient, and emotionally fragile devout Christian Scientist. When she committed suicide in 1967, the twenty-six-year-old Gray understood this to be a harrowing inheritance. “The new fear was not only that Mom had killed herself,” he once wrote on a piece of scrap paper, “but had also laid the groundwork to kill me.” In his adult life, Gray had three major romantic relationships—each one turbulent, each one intertwined with his work life, and each one documented to varying degrees in his monologues. Gray, always a late bloomer, was well into his fifties before he finally settled down in a more conventional way, living with Kathleen Russo (whom he eventually married) and their children: Marissa Maier, Russo’s daughter by a previous relationship, and two sons, Forrest and Theo Gray. Becoming a father allowed Gray to develop something along the lines of simple gratitude. “My cup runneth over today,” he wrote in his journal on January 21, 2000. “Everything feels like more than enough today.” This period of contentment, however, soon came to a swift and brutal end. In June 2001, while vacationing in Ireland for his sixtieth birthday, Gray, along with Russo and three of their friends, was in a devastating car accident. He was left with an orbital fracture, a broken hip, and a permanent limp, among other injuries. The accident forever altered Gray, robbing him of many of his physical pleasures, such as swimming and skiing, and of his sense of joy in family life. Ultimately, it also deprived him of his sense of purpose, and of salvation too, in chronicling his life for an audience.
This story is clearly laid out in And Everything Is Going Fine, but a delicate psychological portrait is delivered as well. It is a daunting challenge to capture in images the hidden emotional tensions of someone like Gray, a man who was dangerously accustomed to shifting his persona to suit the needs of his art. But Soderbergh conveys an exquisite understanding of Gray’s inner life, most particularly through his deft cuts between the performer on- and offstage. The film crisscrosses between Gray as he tells a story to an audience and him describing the same event elsewhere. (Gray is alternately older or younger, his hair shorter or longer, his demeanor self-serious or self-mocking, as we are taken through this visual tour of his life.) This brings to the surface a great many clues to the schism that existed in the artist as a result of his work—the varying ways in which he altered his own story, contorting events and emotions for performance, and the ways in which this affected him in his intimate life. At one point, Gray is shown standing at a gravestone—it’s not clear why he is there—and he asks, “Are there any secrets that I have? Are there stories that I don’t tell?” He waits a beat. “Yes,” he answers. And then he smiles broadly for the camera.
Soderbergh draws most substantially from one interview in particular. Gray is at home in Sag Harbor, New York. It is 1999; he is fifty-eight, and he allows himself a kind of melancholy honesty that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the documentary. He tells intimate stories of his mother, her nervous breakdowns, and how he first heard of her suicide from his father—a memory that provides as many vivid and telling details as one of his monologues. Gray speaks also of his own emotional fragility and the nature of his work. “I suspect that as long as I have a voice,” he says, “there will be a story.” For a moment, a vulnerability surfaces on his face, a trace of the haunting sadness that he seemingly always carried with him and tried to exorcise through his storytelling. It is a rare instance in which he seems to have let go of the thought of an audience.
The next scene catapults us into Gray’s life postaccident. He walks on crutches and, soon after, confesses that he feels “kind of like I’m half-dead.” Indeed, something has been extinguished—in his eyes, in his being. Soderbergh handles this with sensitivity, guiding us carefully through these difficult last years of Gray’s life. We see the performer, suddenly an old man, doing Interviewing the Audience, a show in which he did just that: interviewed members of the audience about their lives. (He first tried this in the 1980s and enjoyed it so much—he was a natural and generous listener in this setting—that he carried on with it throughout his career.) But here, suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the accident in Ireland, he no longer asks piercing questions, he can no longer find the story. And he can no longer tell his own.
In this documentary, there is no mention of Gray’s throwing himself from the Staten Island Ferry, as it is believed he did, on January 10, 2004. Instead, Soderbergh takes us back to the beginning—to an innocence that Gray himself was always reaching back for—with a series of images of him as a very small boy, accompanied by an ominously beautiful soundtrack composed by Forrest Gray. In the end, Gray is delivered into his mother’s arms again, a newborn, his story not yet told.
Nell Casey is the editor of The Journals of Spalding Gray, An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, and the national best seller Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.