Shades of gray

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jen­nifer Levin For The New Mex­i­can

IAnd Ev­ery­thing Is Go­ing Fine, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, CCA Cine­math­eque, 4 chiles Spald­ing Gray — Spuddy, as he was known to fam­ily and friends — was a lead­ing prac­ti­tioner of the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mono­logue, which be­gan its rise in the early 1980s. Gray liked it sim­ple. He sat on a bare stage at a desk with a notebook and a glass of wa­ter, and he talked for 90 min­utes. And it was riv­et­ing. His top­ics were him­self and the world, through the lens of his ex­pe­ri­ence. Cre­ative nar­cis­sism, he called it, or some­times po­etic jour­nal­ism. Reg­u­lar jour­nal­ists file their sto­ries as soon as pos­si­ble, he said, but he liked to sit with his top­ics and let them be­come part of his un­con­scious. Gray was a hunter of skele­tons in his own closet, of nar­ra­tives in his daily life, un­til his sui­cide in 2004. It is be­lieved that he jumped off the Staten Is­land Ferry. His body was found in the East River two months af­ter he was re­ported miss­ing. By the end of his life, Gray had amassed a glowing crit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion and an ador­ing fan base, and now di­rec­tor Steven Soder­bergh has cre­ated a bi­og­ra­phy of Gray told mem­oir-style, in Gray’s own voice, through clips from per­for­mances, in­ter­views, and other footage, in­clud­ing con­ver­sa­tions with his fa­ther. And Ev­ery­thing Is Go­ing Fine is an homage for se­ri­ous fans as well as a tan­ta­liz­ing primer for novices just dis­cov­er­ing the work.

Gray grew up in Rhode Is­land and be­gan acting af­ter col­lege in the mid-1960s. He came to na­tional promi­nence in 1987 af­ter his one-man play, Swim­ming to Cam­bo­dia, about be­ing in Thai­land and acting in the movie The Killing Fields, was shot for the big screen by Jonathan Demme. Ev­ery­thing Is Go­ing Fine shows us that Gray ap­peared on MTV and E! dur­ing this burst in pop­u­lar­ity, his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion that coun­ters those net­works’ cur­rent em­pha­sis on re­al­ity pro­gram­ming — al­though it could be ar­gued that Gray was the orig­i­nal re­al­ity show, with his will­ing­ness to speak about the deep­est parts of him­self and

his au­di­ences’ end­less ap­petite for the gory de­tails. He claimed to have al­ways been an ac­tor, a ham, de­spite an un­nur­tur­ing up­bring­ing in the Chris­tian Science faith. His fa­ther spoke in eu­phemisms, and his mother suf­fered from in­creas­ingly se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems that even­tu­ally re­sulted in her 1967 sui­cide. Soder­bergh tells Gray’s life story through the mono­logues Gray per­formed to tell the same story, so the true artis­tic moviemak­ing feat here is in the edit­ing: Gray does not age chrono­log­i­cally in the film, but in­stead the film is pieced to­gether to tell a chrono­log­i­cal tale. Gray’s hair zings from dark to light and back again. The main­stay through­out the years is his calm de­meanor, even when he re­ally gets go­ing with a story. His process, it is re­vealed, was to first tell a story and then write it down. Many of his mono­logues were pub­lished in book form, and in 1992 he pub­lished his only novel, Im­pos­si­ble Va­ca­tion. He later recorded the ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing and pub­lish­ing his novel as the mono­logue Mon­ster in a Box, which was later turned into a film by Nick Broom­field.

The older he got, the more com­fort­able Gray grew with his dark side, but a mono­logue about his first year in col­lege re­veals his re­ac­tion to en­coun­ter­ing the wider world af­ter his shel­tered child­hood. “My bed was right by the win­dow, and the room was so small that no mat­ter where I moved the bed, it was ba­si­cally near the win­dow. I was up­set be­cause I was read­ing Freud for the first time, and I read that Freud had dis­cov­ered an un­con­scious. I don’t re­mem­ber how, but he had. And this was a shock to me be­cause un­til then, I thought I was here; I didn’t know there was a whole part of me that was miss­ing; I didn’t know there was this Un, which, if you didn’t know how big it is, could go on for­ever, and I thought that it was hous­ing all the self-de­struc­tive shadow as­pects of my­self, and if I went to sleep by that win­dow the Un would take over my body in the night and jump out the win­dow with it. And half­way down, the con­scious self would be des­per­ately grasp­ing at the bricks.”

Gray flirted with de­pres­sion as well as manic ten­den­cies through­out his life. In 2001, he was in a car ac­ci­dent in Ire­land that left him with sev­eral in­juries, in­clud­ing a skull frac­ture and brain in­jury that made writ­ing and per­form­ing dif­fi­cult, though he tried. The mono­logue he per­formed in his last pub­lic ap­pear­ance was pub­lished posthu­mously in 2005 as Life In­ter­rupted. In a well-known tale about the night be­fore he dis­ap­peared, Gray watched Tim Bur­ton’s Big Fish, which ends with the line “A man tells a story over and over so many times he be­comes the story. In that way, he is im­mor­tal.” Ac­cord­ing to many sources, Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, said that Gray cried af­ter­ward: “I just think it gave him per­mis­sion. I think it gave him per­mis­sion to die.”

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