|“And Everything Is Going Fine’’ distills hours of footage of Spalding Gray (shown performing at Lincoln Center in 1999) on stage with just a few props and his wit. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/File)|
And Everything is Going Fine
Gray Ghost: Soderbergh’s spectral documentary invokes late performer’s spirit and gift for storytelling
When he first appears in “And Everything Is Going Fine,’’ the late performance artist Spalding Gray is a wavy image. His plaid shirt appears to be creating a moiré effect with old video footage. If you look closer, so does the rest of him. He sits behind a desk and tells a story about his family’s celebrating the end of the Second World War. Gray is behind that desk for much of this eerie, affectionate documentary that Steven Soderbergh has constructed from live performances, television interviews, and home movies. It’s the visual equivalent of a book of letters. In this case, Soderbergh’s movie demonstrates that Gray’s most significant correspondence was with an audience.
From these many, many hours of footage, distilled to an hour and a half, the illusion emerges that Gray is still communicating with his audience (he took his life in 2004; he was 62). The clever trick of Soderbergh’s distillation is that he’s removed the conventional traces of directorial guidance. The fingerprints on this otherworldly assemblage appear to be Gray’s. Images make up the story of his life — a version of it, at least. And, really, while the words belong to the storyteller, the story in “And Everything Is Going Fine’’ appears to be telling itself.
The ghostly approach solves a nagging fault of movies of this sort. How does a filmmaker sidestep the problem of cutting away from concert footage or a film clip to a bandmate or ex-wife? Soderbergh corrects the nuisance of talking heads. He decapitates them. He spares us the exasperation of wanting to see the subject in prime form. To that end, Soderbergh’s movie is a Spalding Gray bonanza.
The movie isn’t an autopsy. It’s a kind of séance. You’re left with as rich a sense of this man as you would in a more typical work of nonfiction. But the film’s deceptive, meticulous editing also reveals that Gray’s odd ambition met a cultural moment in which it could take root and thrive.
In such monologues as “Swimming to Cambodia,’’ “Sex and Death to the Age of 14,’’ “Terrors of Pleasure,’’ “It’s a Slippery Slope,’’ Gray rhapsodized about his Providence upbringing, his assortment of carnal experiences, his suicidal mother, his adventures abroad, an affair, the child the affair produced. His stage work and the handful of movies it became — Jonathan Demme directed “Swimming to Cambodia’’ (1984) and Soderbergh made “Gray’s Anatomy’’ (1996) — made him a star within a universe of erudite sophisticates. He was a kind of bohemian preppie, whose excursions and insights, particularly in the 1980s, flattered the tastes and self-impressions of his audiences. He had perfected the role of himself. Occasionally, his breathlessness and candor would find a subject (often sex) that would spark the uniqueness of his humor.
His success seems inconceivable now. American popular culture was open to Gray — and to Laurie Anderson and a handful of other performance artists. There are numerous clips of him talking to a young, foxy Joy Behar and being interviewed on VH1, MTV, and E! cable channels that exposed Gray to millions of people who would never have gone to see him in New York or to an art house to see “Gray’s Anatomy.’’
The minimalism of a man and a prop (desk, lamp, record player, radio) contrasts with Gray’s maximal storytelling. Without the desk, his wryness could turn condescending. He acted in fiction movies and, in 1988, played the Stage Manager in “Our Town’’ on Broadway. Frank Rich, in his New York Times review, wrote that Gray was woefully miscast. In this documentary, the different desks and tables conjure up schoolhouses, newscasts, and courtrooms. In that plaid shirt, on video, waving spectrally, Gray seems a tad oracular. But the desks and tables also evoke a student reporting on his trials.