Nancy Campbell/IFC Films
In His Own Words: A new film from Steven Soderbergh uses excerpts from the work of Spalding Gray (above) to make a new portrait of the artist as a tormented man.
Is Going Fine
- Director: Steven Soderbergh
- Genre: Documentary
- Running Time: 89 minutes
With: Spalding Gray
In a particularly manic passage from one of Spalding Gray's extended autobiographical monologues, the actor and writer relates the story of how, after his mother's suicide, his father attempted to create a perfect new life with another woman. As the story builds to a verbal crescendo, and as the imperfections and cracks in his father's carefully constructed world surface within Gray's stream-of-consciousness barrage, he periodically inserts one particular phrase — a mantra meant to indicate his father's denial that there might actually be anything wrong: "And everything is going fine ..."
It's a fitting quote for Steven Soderbergh to lift for the title of his documentary about Gray, who died in 2004 in an apparent suicide: There's a careful composure and grace in Gray's monologues that belie the emotional turmoil and familial dysfunction that they often described. In devising an appropriate summation of his subject's life, the director decides to just let Gray do what he always did best: tell his own story.
Soderbergh seems to set this up as a filmmaking challenge: Can a life's story be told exclusively in the words of the deceased, with no aid from secondary sources of any kind, and in a way that also makes some sense of his death? And at first the approach makes the film feel something like a highlight reel, a disconnected clip collection without narration, intertitles or much context to link together the bits of film and video culled from various points in Gray's career.
But a structure quickly emerges; the film becomes a roughly chronological autobiography, built in the editing room mostly from Gray's monologues, along with a handful of interviews. Choosing carefully from the many hours of material at his disposal, Soderbergh imposes a shape until the film begins to feel less like puzzle pieces in search of their place and more like one seamless picture: It's almost as if, with this collage of the artist's past work, he's created an entirely new final monologue for Gray.
Nancy Campbell/IFC Films
A man of many talents, Gray was a playwright and screenwriter as well as an actor and performance artist.
A man of many talents, Gray was a playwright and screenwriter as well as an actor and performance artist. Nancy Campbell/IFC Films
The biographical facts are the easy part: Since Gray was tireless in talking about himself — the man described what he did in many terms, one of them being “creative narcissism” — there's no shortage of wittily related stories that hit the major touchstones. What's more difficult, and where the film excels, is the task of picking out the clips that peek deeper into Gray's mind to reveal more than just anecdotes and facts. These are glimpses that lead the narrative to a point where his premature death seems almost inevitable.
It's not just hearing Gray talk about how his mother consulted him for advice on her method of suicide. And it's not merely that we witness Gray's own father reflecting, with cruel nonchalance, on his disbelief that his son was ever able to hack it as an actor. As in the making of any movie, Soderbergh makes the moments in between the words count, too. As if directing Gray posthumously, he takes care to use clips in which some expression or nonverbal cue from Gray reveals something extra, something below the surface and behind the words.
Toward the end, in footage from an interview conducted not long before his death, Gray seems visibly shaken by the mournful baying of a dog in a nearby yard. In that moment, it's quite clear that everything is far from fine. Taken out of the context of this film, the clip might not seem so portentous; here, one suddenly feels witness to the guttering of a creative light. (Recommended)