“I like telling the story of life better than I do living it,” shrugs Spalding Gray in And Everything Is Going Fine, a video eulogy for the writer-actor who carved out a niche doing autobiographical monologues on New York stages in the 1980s. As in his one-man performances, nearly all the words are Gray’s, but clips of his shows as well as media interviews and private footage have been culled and shaped by Steven Soderbergh into a chronological map of the artist’s lifelong battle with depression, which ended with his self-inflicted death by drowning in 2004. Gray became an avatar of WASP neurosis via his idiosyncratic wit and bone-dry, deskbound delivery, particularly after his Swimming to Cambodia was filmed by Jonathan Demme, and his gifts for recounting both quotidian and life-changing miseries—with occasional bursts of ecstasy—remain achingly funny and painful. Sex reliably is an obsession in Gray’s accounts of his preppie and nascent acting years, from his simple determination to lose his virginity at a college mixer (“I hear you go down,” he greets a girl) to acting in a porn film, but even into middle age and a long-term relationship the most haunting theme of his theatrical oeuvre was the burdensome suicide of his distant Christian Scientist mother, who had chillingly questioned her son, “How shall I do it? In the garage?”
Reacting to his Rhode Island family’s silence about his mother’s illness by crafting real-life trauma into art, eventually spun into a storytelling format at the Wooster Group company he co-founded in lower Manhattan, Gray’s success and modicum of celebrity didn’t banish his demons or diminish his sources of material. Soderbergh pointedly includes a moment of this self-described “creative narcissist” affirming that he kept some of his life out of his work, amid the messy details (which he went public with some years after the events) of breaking up with his girlfriend after getting a new lover pregnant, then entering an unlikely new phase of contentment as a family man after moving in with the woman who bore his child. Gray’s self-awareness and wit always seemed like faulty but sufficient armor against his psyche’s dark forces, but And Everything Is Going Fine punctures that notion as a distortion of art. Without any postscript on the suicide more explicit than his subject’s suggestion that “the sea is a mother,” Soderbergh closes with footage of Gray, downbeat yet wistful, after a major car crash left him with skull injuries that spurred a final slide into despair. Listening to the “lamentation” of a howling dog as he muses on his proper epitaph, Gray is the picture of an honorable but defeated man for whom the filtering of anguish through imaginative theatre wasn’t, ultimately, enough.