and everything is going fine ~ spalding gray
If I think back over the course of my life and am really honest with myself, the artist who has had more impact on me than any other would be Spalding Gray.
I was a senior in college and on an uncharacteristically warm February Friday, while taking a break from writing our masterworks in playwriting class, our teacher Mame Hunt showed us Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. It was one of those rare moments in life where you realize in the moment that your perception on art in life is forever changed. I had never seen anything like it before or since. Though it has been relatively few years since he changed my life, I have spent those years trying to incorporate the lessons of Spalding Gray into my own work.
Spalding was the accidental creator of a new genus of storytelling and without question the best to have done so. His work was presented simply, without flare or extravagance while sitting at a desk with a glass of water, a notebook, occasionally a microphone, and sometimes a prop, he told personal stories from his life that at times felt like a private confessional. He created over a dozen monologues each of which could be considered a masterpiece. Each would eventually be transcribed into a book or collection, and three of those monologues were turned into films: Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy (Steven Soderbergh), and Swimming to Cambodia (Jonathan Demme).
If you’ve never seen or don’t even know what Swimming to Cambodia is, get to your local video store or amazon right now and get it. A masterpiece among masterpieces, Gray discusses his role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields. Crosscutting between his experience in Thailand filming the movie and a history lesson of the actual events of the Khmer Rouge genocide and the killing fields in Cambodia. It is quite possibly the greatest eighty-five minutes ever committed to film. It is also a book, one which I read yearly.
Sadly Spalding committed suicide in 2004. He suffered his whole life with depression and severe manic episodes, many stemming from the suicide of his own mother. What really makes the story of Spalding Gray a true tragic tale is that in the five or so years leading up to his death he’d acquired a family and seemed to come to some kind of understanding with his demons. It was a near fatal car crash that left him with severe brain trauma that led to numerous surgeries that reopened the gate to those demons. Unable to cope with the pain he felt on a minute to minute basis and the depression he’d suffered his whole life, Spalding took his own life. It is presumed that he jumped from the Staten Island Ferry. Two months after having been reported missing his body was found along the shore in the East River.
It was sometime in 2006 while literally devouring everything written or recorded by Spalding Gray that I heard early rumblings of a documentary on Spalding’s life directed by Steven Soderbergh. I immediately had visions of how I would direct my own documentary, with plenty of static shots of foggy New England harbors, and New York City streets, all playing over the voices of people from Spalding’s life. It was a beautiful idea, in my mind. All the while I couldn’t help but think that there was something unnatural about someone else telling his story. I didn’t know how to achieve the goal of having Spalding tell his own story but that just seemed the most “true” way to do it.
When I saw the first trailer for Soderbergh’s film, And Everything is Going Fine, I understood exactly what my mind was grasping for but just couldn’t reach.
And Everything is Going Fine is not so much a linear story as it is a piecing together of a story from rarely seen interviews and performance clips. Those clips are used to explain some of the more meaningful events of Gray’s life. The documentary is a beautiful piece of filmmaking that acts as the final monologue of Spalding’s career. Clearly Soderbergh didn’t approach the project as an objective observer, but rather as a dedicated fan of the work. This show’s in every cut.
Subsequently any fan will find this to be a perfect encapsulation of what Spalding Gray was, an unparalleled storyteller, one who could make a simple trip to the grocery store into an epic tale. I had to wonder just what a non fan would get from the film. Due to the nature of the storytelling it leaves out the simple details such as, his birth, his siblings, his suicide is not mentioned once. Being as familiar with the material as I was, I understood what was being referenced in every clip, the casual observer might not.
Then there is the reality that while many of us may think that through his monologues we had an understanding of who he really was. We didn’t. Spalding often had difficulty not telling a story, the interviews in the film aren’t windows into his unguarded self, they’re just micro performances. In one clip Spalding is filmed candidly walking poolside in the snow with his father, even here in this semi private moment he has difficulty blocking out the camera and dropping the performance.
It should also be noted that subjective storytelling such as this can lead to cross-chatter between fiction and reality. Gray freely admits throughout the film that as he told the stories over time, he began to forget just what had been fictionalized. As a pure biographical documentary, this leaves much to be desired. Then again it never makes the claim to be attempting to do so. This is his story, through his eyes, with his own words, the only way that most of us ever knew him.
This film is a genuine work of art that in the end presents Gray’s life the only way it really could be told, through his own words. It becomes a delicious appetizer sampler tray, teasing you to try the main course after the credits. Perhaps there is still a chance that one day a more linear (and ultimately less honest) documentary will be made, one with static shots of harbors, and New York City Streets, all while telling the story of my greatest artistic influence.
And Everything is Going Fine is out on DVD now and can be found on Netflix instant streaming. It’s a superb accomplishment of editing and one last look at Spalding Gray.