Comprised of archival interviews and performance excerpts, Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine is both a documentary and retropsective of the late actor and monologist Spalding Gray.
I’ll admit a general ignorance, prior to this film, about Spalding Gray as a person, as well as his work. An actor who is primarily known for autobiographical monologues generally isn’t someone who bubbles to the top of public consciousness. It’s a smaller theater crowd, although he was perhaps as well known as someone in that discipline could be. Be that as it may, this film is primarily a documentary, which makes it superbly suited for both myself and anyone else looking for a crash course on Mr. Gray. But even more than that, I was surprised at how immediately I found it engaging, given that I was starting at the ground floor.
The most interesting thing about this film, and a point that is in stark contrast to most documentaries, is that the subject has not just the final, but the only word. Instead of mashing up clips of Spalding and interspersing them with friends and colleagues waxing eloquent, director Steven Soderbergh instead took the interesting step of creating a final monologue for Mr. Gray. Since his career was primarily spent giving a string of anecdotal recollections from his life, those have been arranged chronologically – along with actual interviews from throughout his career – to allow him to tell his own story of his life and work. And to be honest, he tells it in a much more interesting way than anyone else probably would have.
Gray’s monologues are heavily leaned on for source material, and his style is a fairly balanced mix between soberly confessional and manic stand-up routine. He was probably never angling for either extreme, but instead found both to be inescapable: parts of his life are unavoidably serious and tinged with regret, and then other moments there’s nothing you can do but comically pan some of the ridiculous tales from your youth. There’s a sadness to many of the stories from his youth, as he early on had to deal with his mother’s suicide, leaving a cloud that hangs over his memories from that period, as well as a personality trait he always feared he shared with her.
But what’s most interesting is his gift as a storyteller, more than the actual stories themselves. He has a fearlessness and manic energy that is often hypnotically engaging. And the contrast of this oratory gusto from most of his career is set against the more beaten version of him that we see towards the end of his life.
An automobile accident in 2001 left him with several injuries, including what was eventually revealed to be damage to his skull and brain. The damage was unknown to him (as the result of a misdiagnosis), but combined with his already present depression it took its toll towards the end, until he eventually took his life in 2004.
Soderbergh was already interviewing and filming Gray by that point, as he directed the video for one of his final monologues. These images offer Gray the chance to narrate his own end and, perhaps even with the knowledge that his emotional candle was waning, summarily reflect on his work and life’s journey. It’s an effective and engaging look at a talented but troubled soul, and an honest film as well.
And Everything Is Going Fine is a documentary in even the most technical sense. It is solely made of archival footage, exclusively narrated by its subject. The only downside to this is one of the most forgivable kind: it’s made from dated media sources, complete with low resolution, inherent noise and questionable video quality. In fact, the majority of the movie had to be upscaled from these smaller definition sources. The result is something that is absolutely as good as it needs to look (and perhaps could look), as long as you’re ok with that often being equivalent to a stack of VHS tapes from the ’80s that you pulled from the attic.
The aged source material and strictly dialogue bent of the film don’t really need any more than the lossless LPCM 1.0 audio track provided, if that. Although the dialogue is relatively clean throughout – at least relative to its source – it was never in a state that would show appreciable gain from modern lossless tracks, and especially multi-channel separation. However, it’s always comforting to have an obviously definitive version, even if it’s perhaps a tad overkill. The bottom line is that your experience with this film, as opposed to most of the rest of Criterion’s collection, would not be practically diminished one way or another with a DVD over the Blu-ray version.
Although the supplemental items provided aren’t overly expansive, they are well curated. “The Making Of And Everything Is Going Fine” (HD, 20:56) features director Steven Soderbergh, producer Kathleen Russo and editor Susan Littenberg discussing the construction of the film after Gray’s death. Their insights into him as a person, as well as the wealth of material they were left to sift through makes for a brief, but very interesting feature.
The primary bonus item is Gray’s 1982 monologue performance entitled “Sex And Death To The Age 14″ (HD, 1:04:15). While the feature highlights some excerpts from this performance, the complete monologue provides much clearer context for Gray’s overall style and the experience of taking in one of his shows. His often manic, rapid-fire delivery help to pack a lot of stories and personal history into a mere hour. Also included is the film’s trailer (HD, 2:06), as well as a booklet that features an essay by writer Nell Casey.
I’m willing to bet that the group of people who would enjoy this film is much larger than the group who actually know about it, or perhaps even about its subject. An actor who primarily dealt in autobiographical monologues isn’t the subject of blockbusters, and so this title has “niche” invisibly written all over it. But Gray has a very captivating presence, and you quickly get sucked in by his storytelling charisma. Likewise, Soderbergh’s light touch on this film – as almost more of a supervising co-editor – gives this a breezy, best-of overview of Gray’s life and work. As a documentary, its immediacy is engaging and impressive. And as a posthumous biography, it’s also a bit sobering. Criterion’s treatment is typically solid, with well-placed bonus materials, although the Blu-ray format is mostly overkill for the lo-fi source material.