By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 22, 2011)
Everything is contingent, and there is also chaos.
Who was it who once dismissed the art of the monologist as “comedy, without punch lines”? Oh…it was me. OK, I confess-when I used to work as a stand-up, I always felt a bit envious of my more long-winded show-biz cousins, because generally, they get to sit down (I’ve always been a lazy bastard). Not only that, but they get to sit behind a desk, upon which they are allowed to keep notes (in case they lose their place-which probably makes actors jealous, too).
They could get away with using props-without being accused of “hiding behind them”. Also, why is it that when a stand-up comic does a long-form piece with props, it’s a “one person-show”…never a “monologue”? Who, or what, officially certifies you as a monologist?
As I allegedly became older and wiser, I came to admire the monologists, once I gleaned what separates them from stand ups. Stand-ups are insecure and desperate for acceptance. That’s why we’re willing to go out there “naked” with only a microphone in hand, performing the same 20 minute act night after night for roomfuls of hostile drunks, collect $50, and dash for the exit, before the sense of shame and humiliation over what we do for a living sinks in (Jay Leno once cleverly likened the life of a stand up to that of a hooker).
A monologist, on the other hand, has to have a strong sense of confidence. Confident enough to believe that the minutiae of their lives is so fascinating, people will pay good money to sit in rapt attention for 90 minutes while they prattle on about themselves.
Whether or not you are going to enjoy And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s documentary about the life of the late Spalding Gray (king of all monologists) largely hinges on how open you are to paying good money to sit in rapt attention for 90 minutes while someone prattles on about themselves. That’s because Soderbergh is shrewd enough to let a man who was nothing if not a compulsive (and gifted) storyteller tell you his own story, in his own words.
For Gray’s fans, Soderbergh’s film could be what the Beatles Anthology was to Fab Four aficionados-a masterfully edited and chronologically assembled compendium of clips from TV interviews and performance excerpts spanning the breadth of his career, spiced throughout by rare and previously unseen footage. What emerges is a portrait of the artist, narrated by the artist.
Like many moviegoers, my first awareness of Gray was due to Swimming to Cambodia, Jonathan Demme’s wonderfully realized 1987 film version of Gray’s stage show, in which Gray was able to weave a mesmerizing and entertaining monologue from his experience working on the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. He had a relatively minor part in that film, but the stage piece it inspired is a veritable epic; it may begin like just another backstage tale, but somehow ends up touching on life, the universe and everything.
The film was a surprise hit, and although he continued to take acting roles, he was always best at “playing” Spalding Gray, particularly in subsequent film versions of three more stage shows, (the 1988 HBO presentation Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure, and two feature films-Monster in a Box from 1992 and Gray’s Anatomy, released in 1996).
There is an elephant in the room that Soderbergh largely sidesteps, and that is Gray’s tragic end. In March of 2004, after a two-month disappearance, his body was recovered from the East River, off Greenpoint in Brooklyn. It was a presumed suicide, as Gray had been suffering from severe depression (and had made several attempts to take his own life) since a 2001 car accident that left him with a fractured skull and shattered hip. There is some footage of Gray recounting the accident, and hobbling around on crutches, but not too much further elaboration on what it eventually may have led to.
Perhaps the director does broach the subject in his own oblique fashion; in one interview clip Gray jokes about how Soderbergh had talked him into taking a “perfect part” in his 1993 film King of the Hill-playing a depressive who eventually kills himself. And there are several clips (from tinterviews and stage shows) where Gray refers to his mother’s suicide; perhaps the most revealing quote comes when he says “I was darkly convinced that at age 52 I would kill myself because my mother committed suicide at that age. I was fantasizing that she was waiting for me on the other side of the grave.” We can never know who or what Gray thought might be waiting for him when he took that plunge into the watery depths, but if dead men really could tell tales, I’d bet his would be the best.