Friday, April 2, 2010

Playing with Himself: Spalding on Spalding in Soderbergh's Latest

Posted By on Fri, Apr 2, 2010 at 10:56 AM

Many SXSW films have little shot at national theatrical distribution, so SXSW provides an opportunity to check them out before the lucky folks in New York and Los Angeles get to see them.

Reviews of two of them the awful Trash Humpers and the excellent American: The Bill Hicks Story are available on the archive page for my reports from Austin. Simply put, if Trash Humpers had been on YouTube, I would have clicked away. American: The Bill Hicks Story was an intimate look at the comedian's personal life that dodged formal documentary conventions by pairing audio with cropped photos set in motion in three dimensions, creating an unusual form of animation.

Overall, the most thought-provoking movie I saw at SXSW this year was a new documentary about writer and performer Spalding Gray, whose 1987 release Swimming to Cambodia was a breakthrough, though not exactly a blockbuster.

Spalding Gray Delivers a Monologue
  • Spalding Gray Delivers a Monologue


"I like telling the story of life better than I like living it," Spalding Gray says, looking off-camera. "I only live once, I know I won't be reincarnated. Writing is kind of like reincarnation."

In And Everything Is Going Fine, the insightful new documentary directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, The Informant!)Spalding, the master of monologues, tells stories about his troubled family, his creative process and what he called poetic journalism. Collected from archival performances, intimate interviews and bad-hair TV appearances, it is a bittersweet ode to a gifted man who told playful tales on countless stages before ending his own life in 2004 at age 62.

Gray wrote with flavor and innuendo, starting with his photographic memory and then coloring in the details with his irreverent point-of-view. He says, "Some people study acting, other people are born actors." In 1969, he told a story about his day as fast as possible in an acting workshop and things started to click. Improvising onstage doing Curious Savages garnered laughs, and he was hooked. Archival highlights in the film include descriptions of his first charmingly clueless sexual experience in college, charmingly clueless. His first gay experience in Greece was mined for comedic gold. His desire to play Hamlet and have sex onstage led him to hilarious mishaps on the set of a porno.

"Are there secrets?" he asks, rhetorically. "Are there stories that I don't tell?" A devilish grin consumes his face. "Yes." Surely there are stories he didn't tell, but onstage he revealed plenty. Gray's work was often excruciatingly personal, starting with his first monologue Sex and Death to the Age 14, written in 1979. He says that show unlocked a whole new way of acting, like an inverted method actor, "playing with myself."

As a child, he suffered through an enormous distance in his relationship with his parents, exemplified by his father's feeble attempts to explain the facts of life on a golf course. Years later, he learned of his mother's death when his father met him at the airport. Asked how she was doing, his dad simply replied, "She's gone." His mother's suicide was covered up in their community, so his exploration of it onstage with the Wooster Collective was scandalous. A story about going to visit his father and stepmother included the passage, "And everything is going fine, except ..." as a dozen annoyances get in the way of their meal. When Gray's father was in the hospital, Gray's stepmother didn't call to let him know because she was angry at how she was depicted in his book Impossible Vacation.

And Everything Is Going Fine started with 120 hours of footage, which producer Kathie Russo—Gray's widow—got down to 90. Then editor Susan Littenberg (Bride Wars, 13 Going on 30) took over from there and worked on it for two years. Hollywood rebel Soderbergh shot two Gray films in the 1990's, the unanimously adored King of the Hill and the accessibly avant-garde Gray's Anatomy and had intended for Gray's life story to be the subject of his first documentary all along. "Steven said I need to make this film," says producer Amy Hobby (Secretary, Nadja) on the phone from New York. "That was five years ago. We've all been busy."

Uncompromising in its examination of Gray's inner turmoil, the film includes footage of him onstage curiously interrogating a stranger about her consideration of suicide. Though he insisted "I don't believe in fate" after a nasty car accident in 2001, in the end it seems he followed in his mother's footsteps. Though his one-man shows may not resonate with the average fan of movies about mall security guards, Spalding Gray had a gift for examining universal truths. Scenes from the film are still rattling around in my mind two weeks later.

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