The stage is empty but for the chair and small table. The table is empty except for the glass of water and small notebook. And the chair is empty until a man shuffles onstage, a nervous late thirtysomething still youngish but verging on middle age, or a slightly older man in a tweed coat flush with first-time success, or a graying family man playing corny 90s songs on a boom box (remember those?), or an old man sad and wincing with pain, hobbling on crutches after a devastating accident, but still - for the moment - driven and curious. And as soon as these men speak they fill not only the space onstage but our imaginations - with stories, jokes, memories, maybe the occasional tall tale; worries, regrets, hopes, musings, dreams, nightmares, questions that sometimes can't be answered but must be posed anyway.
These men are all Spalding Gray, from the first time he cleared his throat and launched into Sex and Death to the Age of 14 to Life Interrupted, his final monologue in which he focused on asking audience members for their thoughts rather than assembling his own experiences into something that, chaotic as it appeared at first glance, made some sort of sense. A performance art/one-man-show pioneer, Gray was particularly famed for his monologue Swimming to Cambodia (structured around the shooting of The Killing Fields, in which Gray had a supporting role). This at once wide-ranging and termitically focused classic is loaded with hilarious and truthful anecdotes, chilling history, amusing film-set gossip, morbid self-analysis, and moving meditation; I read it on the page but would imagine it was even more effective seeing Gray deliver the material live, in his inimitable fashion.
There's a film of the one-man play, shot by Jonathan Demme in the mid-80s, which I haven't seen, but I recently rented two new Criterion releases, Gray's Anatomy (1997) and Everything is Going Fine (2010), both directed by Steven Soderbergh and dedicated to capturing Gray's art roughly ten and twenty years, respectively, after he "swam to Cambodia." These two films formed my introduction to Gray's work but it wasn't until I watched the second film that I fell under his spell. Gray's Anatomy, up first, suffers from being quintessential quirk, at least to my eyes. Speaking of eyes - well, that's exactly what Gray does here, nervously and amusingly detailing an eye operation he avoided (with all sorts of wacky, failed "natural" treatments) as long as he could.
Soderbergh jazzes up the monologue with colorful lighting, technical stylization, and an overactive soundtrack; meanwhile he pads the film by interviewing other folks who've gotten something stuck in their eyes. These passages are almost impossible to watch/listen to. I can view just about any act of gruesome violence onscreen but simply hearing a speech about a steel splinter lodged in someone's eyeball, no matter how calmly the speech is delivered, inspires in me an overwhelming desire to eject the DVD.
But I didn't and, fortuitously, after several minutes of aural torture, Gray's presentation begins. It's often funny, but ultimately pretty lightweight. As it turns out, Soderbergh excised a good chunk of the monologue which gave it additional meaning and resonance: Gray's relationship to Renee Shafransky, the woman who helped him shape his material for over a decade (and lived with him for about as long) was unraveling. Indeed, this very work would be their last collaboration before Gray married and started a family with another woman.
Without that background, Gray's Anatomy just plays as a flashy pomo visual essay, not much different in its concern with style over substance from a lot of other Soderbergh movies. But Everything is Going Fine is animated by a quite different concern. Gray committed suicide in 2004; clinically depressed in part because of the immense brain damage suffered during a 2001 car accident, his death nonetheless seemed grimly inevitable in retrospect. From his first monologue, Gray's work had been haunted by the death of his mentally ill Christian Scientist mother who took her own life in 1967.
Gray's widow contacted Soderbergh, asking him to assemble hours upon hours of Gray's videotaped performances and interviews into a compilation telling his life story. The director leaped at the opportunity, in part because he felt so guilty about ignoring his friend during his long and slow decline. Everything is Going Fine is often deeply moving, still in tune with Soderbergh's stylistic concerns (he eagerly foregrounds the different film and video formats used to capture Gray over the years), but in a way that complements Gray's life journey rather than drowning it out.
Indeed, the juxtapositions of different interviews and monologues serve as disclaimers, Kane-like, about how multifaceted a life can be. One moment we hear an episode described in broadly comic terms onstage, the next Gray appears in a more somber interview setting, expanding emotionally on that same incident. Which perception is true? The embellishment and amplification of art, or the stripped-down confessional mode? The nervy energy of the young man, the comfy domesticity of late middle age, the bitter and pained tinge of the dying? Aren't they all?
Of course the title is ironic (it's drawn from a manic passage describing Gray's father's almost desperately unreflective lifestyle). Yet it's as much a hopeful incantation as it is a morbid jab, the futile hope that by assembling and structuring Gray's experience into this documentary (with the same care he himself applied his own work), the man and his mind can at least momentarily be resurrected. After all, Gray himself spoke of his body of work providing a sort of immortality - maybe the only sort he thought possible.
Perhaps the most moving footage in the film doesn't involve the controlled chaos of Gray's performance, but the offscreen howling of a dog. Gray laughs and shakes his head at the appropriateness of the sound, briefly muses and free associates on its moody connotation, and then just falls silent and listens. Those eyes, the ones he fretted over so comically in Gray's Anatomy, suddenly grow quite sad, filled with a melancholy distance. And we realize that the stage, filled so boisterously by Gray's energy, presence, and spirit, will soon be empty once again.