I don’t think anyone who saw Spalding Gray ever forgets the first time.
For me, it was watching “Swimming to Cambodia” on HBO, of all places. It was my last year of college. It was late. The apartment was quiet and dark, with just a couple candles burning. My girlfriend was asleep. I was a little bit high. So I figured I’d watch something on one of the pay channels. Earlier that day, my buddy Uncle Pete had taken a nine-cent switching diode from Radio Shack, and unlocked all of the pay channels!!!
All four of them. HBO, Showtime, Disney, and Cinemax. This was 1988. Today, I think HBO alone has more channels than our entire cable system did back then.
Anyway, Cinemax was halfway through a lame movie. Showtime was two-thirds of the way through a lesser Chuck Norris film, which I’d seen 5000 times already, and I didn’t even check the Disney Channel. HBO was about to show this thing called “Swimming to Cambodia.” By the candlelight, my weed-addled eyes saw in the description “The Killing Fields,” which was a great movie, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I grabbed two cold bottles of Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest, settled down on the couch, and I settled in for something—I didn’t know what to expect.
It sure as hell wasn’t what happened.
On the screen, this guy walked onto a stage with a notebook, sat down at a desk with only a microphone and a glass of water atop it, and this man talked for ninety minutes. He talked about making “The Killing Fields” (he had a minor role), and he talked about the reality of conditions and…
…and the guy just talked. He was funny sometimes, but not in a comedian-fishing-for-a-laugh way, but he was telling a story.
And that story was one of the most enthralling ninety-minute periods of my life. What rocked my world wasn’t that this guy—whose name I discovered was Spalding Gray—had done a great job of…whatever you’d call it. It’s that I’d never seen, read about, heard about, or even conceived that somebody could walk onstage, sit at a desk, open a spiral notebook, talk for ninety minutes, then walk off to rabid applause.
I have since discovered this is known as a monologist.
I had some long classes where the professor would lecture for ninety minutes before taking a break, but it was nothing like this. Spalding Gray had told me a story, and he had hooked me from the moment he sat down at the desk.
Spalding Gray committed suicide in 2004. “And Everything Is Going Fine” is, sadly, not a final monologue from this brilliant man.
Stephen Soderbergh has created an interesting pastiche here. He uses archival footage of Spalding Gray on talk shows, or being interviewed, or filmed backstage, as well as clips of various Spalding Gray monologues, and puts it all together so there’s a theme and continuity.
The underlying theme is that Gray’s mom killed herself at fifty-two, and you could always see it behind his eyes—is this what’s going to happen to me?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t even know if that previous paragraph is true. I don’t know if I could always see suicidal thoughts behind his eyes, or that I only imagined seeing them because I knew it would happen soon after that point in his life.
Stephen Soderbergh made this as a labor of love, and he obviously spent a lot of time on it. There are so many sources from so many eras to be melded into a coherent narrative, that Soderbergh’s task was daunting. Stephen Soderbergh directed Spalding Gray’s 1996 film “Gray’s Anatomy.”
There’s a lot of love in this movie. It feels disjointed at times, but I think that’s inevitable. When I heard that Spalding Gray died, I was truly sad, for I felt like I knew him. It wasn’t like a favorite actor or actress. This was a guy who sat across a desk and shared his life with you.
I’d recommend this for fans who want to know “What the hell happened?” If you’re a newbie, and you’ve never seen Spalding Gray? Grab “Swimming to Cambodia” or “Monster in a Box.” Then you’ll get it. You’ll want to see all four of his monologues. And by then, you’ll want to know more. Then you come back and see this movie.
Grade: B (Available on Netflix Streaming)