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A masterful documentary resurrects the theatrical life of Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray in a scene from "And Everything Is Going Fine"

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3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

"I like telling the stories of life better than I like living it." - Spalding Gray

He lived his life for 62 years and then, like his mother before him, ended it by his own hand. Yes, his demise echoes through every frame of this documentary, but it goes completely unmentioned. Instead, director Steven Soderbergh has filled those frames entirely with a resurrected Spalding Gray, and allowed him to do again what he did so splendidly before - tell his life's stories.

Appropriately, then, the opening shot sees him in his favourite locale - on stage, seated at a bare desk and wearing a flannel shirt. Always, the props were as minimal as his monologue was expansive. Back in the Me Decade of the eighties, Gray could often be found in precisely that setting, spinning humour from and seeking sense in the chaos of existence - his own existence, mainly, albeit coated in the lacquer of fiction (sometimes thin, sometimes thick) that drama demands and memory conveniently provides. In so doing, at his best, he pushed navel-gazing to the frontier of art and invited the audience to share in the journey. We followed him eagerly, because Gray made the hard truths of self-revelation seem easy, funny, socially acceptable and emotionally rewarding. If only for the length of the show, he let us believe that there's solace in solipsism.

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Combining clips of on-stage performances, off-stage interviews, and the occasional home movie, And Everything Is Going Fine repeats that theatrical journey. Soderbergh has done a masterful job editing the footage to ensure that, even as Gray does all the talking, the story unfolds chronologically: his childhood in Rhode Island; his mother's nervous breakdowns; his early years as an actor; the discovery of his "writer's voice" and of the persona, a sort of WASP Woody Allen, developed in such pieces as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, and Gray's Anatomy (the latter captured on film by Soderbergh himself); finally, his becoming a father in his 50s only to suffer the serious car accident that deepened a constant battle with depression and led to his suicide in 2004.

But if the tale is chronological, the telling is not. The archival clips are arranged so that key moments, like the death of his mother, are recounted in successive frames by the young and the middle-aged and the older Gray - his face smooth one second and lined the next, his hair brown and grey and ample and sparse. Consequently, Soderbergh's editing neatly duplicates Gray's methods, showing us how memory treats the same material at different stages in a life, applying those different coats and shades of lacquer. It's a poignant approach: The doc's structure makes the substance all the more touching.

Admittedly, at times, the film suffers from a problem that also plagued its subject. The line between self-revelation and self-indulgence is thin, and Gray occasionally crosses it, trying our patience with the latest psychobabble from his therapist's office, or some fresh skirmish on the domestic front. But he always finds a way to draw us back into his orbit, usually by giving his particular experience a broader resonance. For example, this witty description of his working technique - "I became like an inverted method actor. I was using myself to play myself" - has a fetching ring of truth for all of us, acting out as we are on our teensy corner of the world stage.

Universal too is the look on his face in the film's final interview, conducted after the car accident. Head scarred, legs damaged, crutches visible at his side, he's sitting in his backyard, when his remarks are interrupted by the sudden howling of a nearby dog. As the howling continues, his eyes widen at this "lamentation," as he terms it, at this sad and fearsome beckoning, and his face contorts, or maybe relaxes, into a half-smile of recognition - it's a call that must be answered.

And Everything Is Going Fine

  • Directed by Steven Soderbergh
  • Starring Spalding Gray
  • Classification: NA

And Everything Is Going Fine opens Thursday for a limited run at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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