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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: And Everything Is Going Fine; Sex and Death to the Age of 14.




AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Steven Soderbergh, 2010 (Criterion Collection)

“I don’t believe in fate. I’m rather a chaos person.”

Spalding Gray

Fate? Chaos? Nell Casey describes Spalding Gray and the opening of his act very well in the little booklet that accompanies the Criterion DVD edition of And Everything is Going Fine — which is Gray‘s last posthumous “monolog” act. It’s a very good show and a very good DVD set.


He walked out on the stage, or sometimes just a floor in a room, a garage. He sat down at a table, set down a glass of water and a spiral notebook. He clipped on a a little microphone, opened the notebook. He began to talk. He started at a brisk clip, and often continued that way, and what came out sometimes sounded a bit like the autobiographical ramblings of an eloquent drunk, except that it was faster and nimbler and defter-witted than most drunks can manage. He was good-looking, almost boyish, but also a bit frayed and thin, like a preppy Easterner gone a little to seed, someone who liked to drink — and talk. He had a faint, vague little smile that played around his face while he spoke, never quite settling in.

So, with his notebook there to help him along if he got stuck, he began to race along verbally, spinning yarns, jumping from one to another — like an actor playing a man telling his life stories to a stranger in a bar. Eugene O’Neill style. Or like Jerry in ?The Zoo Story.”  Or Hamlet. He talks a while, very fast, and with a seemingly offhand delivery — or slower, smoother. Then he stops and takes a sip of water.

Sometimes, he seemed to be embarrassed to be talking — and much of what he was about to say was, in fact, very embarrassing: personal reminiscences, tales about loved ones and his own misdeeds, childhood family tiffs and tragedies, neuroses and psychoses, job difficulties, sexual transgressions or obsessions, illnesses, accidents, family suicides, fucks, failures and fellatio, mistakes and miscues and all the petty and not-so-petty humiliations of life. The kind of stories we all can tell, but we don’t.

The man I’m describing is, and mentioned earlier, was Spalding Gray, the creator/performer of Swimming in Cambodia and Gray’s Anatomy and Monster in a Box and dozens of other theatre monologues, some made into  films, some not. He’s seated at that table, water and notebook near at hand, because that’s what he did for a living. He was a professional storyteller and a very good one, and he had to do it because that was his job, and probably his passion and certainly his art. He was an autobiographical self-dramatist, an embellisher, a strip-teaser of the mind and maybe of the soul. (Don’t laugh.) He’s dead now, and his friends suspect he threw himself off the Staten Island Ferry and drowned, took his life because he was suffering the pain from a bad traffic accident on a lonely road in Ireland that left him with a smashed skull and some brain damage, and, according to Nell Casey “an orbital fracture, a broken hip, and a permanent limp“ — unable to swim, unable to ski. Unable… So he jumped, maybe. Drowned, maybe. As the Manhahttan skyline approached or receded — maybe. Unless he was on the other side of the ferry. We don’t know because he isn’t around to tell the story.

He’d tell it better than we could — wrily, sardonically, wistfully, with lots of detail, with perfect timing, and perhaps with that faint little smile playing around his lips. Then he’d take a sip of water — and we’d look at him, a little startled, and he‘d look back, with a bemused half-grin, and then we’d laugh, because humor is one of the ways we bear the unbearable. Samuel Beckett style humor. Its not funny; it’s funny. It’s not….funny. (Then why are we laughing?)

On stage, Gray seemed to control his job — his art, the art of the monologue — to a very fussy and meticulous degreee, even when someone else, like his ex-wife Renee Shafransky was his co-writer collaborator and director, as in the stage version of “Gray‘s Anatomy.” But it always seemed like a one-man-show. He wrote or co-wrote the script, picked the minimalist set, chose the music. That‘s his notebook, his writing. There must have been somewhere there to switch the lights on and off, but maybe he did that too. Anyway, he tried to give the illusion of someone just strolling in, sitting down and spinning his yarns, riffing, like the guy in the bar, talking about himself, using the notebook to jog his memory every once in a while. “I have a photographic memory,” he says several times in this new film, this last film.

His monologues (he always spelled them “monologs”) sound very carefully written and worked out to me, and I think he wanted us to realize it — which is why he races along so much, like an actor rehearsing his lines: to show us he’s got it all memorized, every word, every sentence, every anecdote, every embarrassment. At times he seems to go up on his own lines — he does that once in the tape extra with And Everything is Going Fine, the tape of his very first monolog, Sex and Death to the Age of 14 (first performed in 1979, taped in 1982) — and then he seems to cover the slip with a sip of water and with the notebook. But maybe this is all misdirection, like Philippe Petit, the man on the high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974, pretending in his acts to misstep or bobble, to get the audience uncertain and scared, to get them thinking of the big plunge.

Gray could control everything, at least on stage. Life was a different story, as the monologues attest. In his other movies he tells the story and his film directors — Jonathan Demme for Swimming to Cambodia, Nick Broomfield for Monster in Box, Steven Soderbergh for Gray’s Anatomy — set the images (Soderbergh does a lot of that), do the cutting. But here, in Everything is Going Fine, Soderbergh has to do more. He has to help tell the story too, has to clip together various bit and pieces from all over, from 90 hours of footage given to him by Gray’s partner/widow/producer Kathleen Russo, and by his editor Susan Littenberg. There’s more shaping and arranging here, down to the choosing of the image (and sound) that will close the film: Gray outside, surrounded by sunny greenery, talking, smiling, and then stopping as a dog howls somewhere behind him, in the trees. How appropriate, he says, and we think. Gray tries to talk, finally stops. The dog keeps howling. He wins the argument. Curtain. Soderbergh’s choice.

Soderbergh is one director whose movies and directions are really hard to predict, except for the Oceans movies. (Ocean’s Twelve has to follow Ocean’s Eleven, and then comes Oceans Thirteen.) Here, he’s obviously trying to give the whole show to Gray, do it the way Gray would have wanted it — even if this is one monologue the actor didn’t shape to the last inch. Soderbergh shaped a lot of it. The director doesn’t comment, except in the interview in the Criterion extras. There, he does fault himself, as a friend, for deserting Gray after his accident. Soderbergh confesses that he knew the severity of Spalding’s injury and was afraid to be around it. That’s a bad thing to have to say about yourself. But it’s a good thing to be able to say it.

So And Everything is Going Fine (the title is a repeated litany from one of Gray’s monologues) is a film portrait of a man painting a portait, or portraits, of himself. Soderbergh and Liitenberg select the shots, make the cuts, view the life, resurrect it. They want to be invisible in their work, but they can’t quite be.

What do we learn about Spalding Gray? Not much we didn’t know already (if we‘ve seen the other films) (not all of which were available) — although some of us my not have known about the accident, or about the suicide, if it was a suicide. An artist can tell us about himself in ways that can make us better understand ourselves and others. Gray told us things that didn’t necessarily help us, because he led a life first of semi-privilege, then of being an artist, an outsider, a Christian Scientist. He was a Wooster Street kook of a guy. He tried to end the story happily once, with a scene we see here, his body dance around the table, where he suddenly becomes himself, his wife, his two sons, all gyrating around the room to some joyous rock n‘roll. But the story wasn’t under his control.

Fate? Chaos? Or “faith” misheard as “fate?” Soderbergh, temporarily all out of oceans, steers us gently through Gray’s world and life on stage, his last penance for letting his friend suffer. But we all try to avoid pain, unless we’re masochists, and then it isn’t pain. Gray’s compulsion throughout to psychically disrobe, is something many actors feel, many writers too – and Gray was both. He’s done it before, rehearsed it all. And he knows everything as it comes off. Everything but the end.

So since all we have for an ending now is that dog howling, let’s imagine and embellish another finis. (Soderbergh

won’t. Kathleen won’t. Susan won’t.) But…

We’re there at the Staten Island Ferry (Many of us know the ferry, and have been on it.) It pulls out from shore. (Pulls into shore?) The skyline recedes. (Approaches.) Water is all around us. We slip into it, begin to swim. Swim? Yes, suddenly, magically we can swim again, and swimming was one of Spalding’s favorite sports, along with skiing and theater and confession. Swim: He has to. For the good of the show.

Is it sunny? Or gray? What’s that: a gull? A shred of dark cloud against the gray sky. We try to fix each detail in our mind. (But why?) The waves. The wind, The sound of the boat. (But why?) The waves shift under us, over us. They will keep moving and rocking a few minutes form now on, no matter what happens. Something burns in our side. We stop. Take a sip of water. The boat moves off, along with everyone who might see us. Gone. Remember the details. (Don’t forget your lines.) The feel of the waves. Last thing. The waves. The wind, the water. The boat receding. Will the audience laugh? Or cry? Or walk out without applauding? Leave us alone? Only the storyteller and his world. Gray. Waves. Waves. Get all the details right, even though there’s nowhere left to tell the story. No one left to hear it. No one.


Also: Sex and Death to the Age of 14 (U.S.: Dan Weissman & Brad Ricker, 1982) Three Stars. Spalding Gray’s first Wooster Group monologue piece — first performed in 1979, taped in 1982, done in the a bare-as-bones way that strips the evening to its essentials (a life, a voice, a notebook, embellishments). It’a mostly about adolesence, sex and families, with some side-excusrsions into Christian science and suicide (his mother’s). It’s all there, first time out.

Extras: “Making Of” interview piece, with Soderbergh, Russo and Littenberg; Trailer; Booklet with Nell Casey essay.

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: And Everything Is Going Fine; Sex and Death to the Age of 14.”

  1. SamLowry says:

    After catching “Swimming to Cambodia” on cable in the ’80s I happened to find the book “Sex and Death to the Age of 14” not long after (how could a title like that NOT appeal to a young man?), so of course I became a fan of Spalding Gray. True Stories, Trying Times; I’ll definitely check this one out, too.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon