Steven Soderbergh’s new film does not ask: But who was Spalding Gray, really? That’s a nonstarter, if only because the asking act is best left to Gray himself.
Yes: an act, as in a bit of business — or a performative personal literature, by which the audacity of sitting alone at a table on a stage and telling stories of self was refined into art. In those cozy dark hours just before the dawn of our era of online oversharing, Gray was the last great confessionalist.
“And Everything Is Going Fine” takes its title from an ironic leitmotif in one of Gray’s many monologues, whose intimacy and singularity the film has been designed to evoke. It’s a memorial scrapbook of archival Spalding Gray materials, arranged by Soderbergh and editor Susan Littenberg with affectionate attention and good organizational intuition. The images accrue not chronologically but in Graylike narrative zigzags: We see him getting older and younger and older again, moving through fluctuations of flannel and coif and footage formats. But the bigger picture, the story of his life, makes its way from a recognizable beginning toward an expected end. It’s the perfect one-man show: eccentric, hilarious and only boring to those already predisposed against him.
The rest of us are invited to cherish him once more, and to reflect. What a peculiar cultural figure, this doomed, delectably artful digresser. He was like a different make of David Foster Wallace — the tone of his voice both intellectual and vernacular, the subject both himself and everything, the suicide both impossible and inevitable. The film does not directly acknowledge that Gray took his own life — that’s the consensus, anyway — in 2004, at age 62. It seems to presume that anyone who would be watching already knows this, and will not be able to forget it. Thus does hindsight become foreshadowing: We learn, or are reminded, that Gray’s mother’s mental illness was fatal; that after reading Freud he worried his unconscious would compel him to throw himself out a window; that he took a role in Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill” partly in order to explore a fantasy of self-induced death.
Expository concerns are handled as Gray handled them: forthrightly, yet discursively. There is no narration, except of course his own. The only character witnesses are his occasional interviewers and very occasional interviewees — whose ranks include strangers gathered up from his audience and his own father. Otherwise, aptly, it is all Spalding all the time.
Gray recounts his experiments with sex, theater, family and fame. He charts the discovery and cultivation of his technique, which he came to describe as both “creative narcissism” and “poetic journalism.”
He says, “I like telling the story of life better than I like living it.”