“Yeah. He was a philosophy grad student.”
“I had this friend in high school who was obsessed with Rod Stewart. He had a whole wall covered with him.”
And Everything Is Going Fine (Steven Soderbergh, 2010)
It dawned on me recently that Steven Soderbergh is, in many ways, a very impersonal director. Though he initially made his reputation as a writer-director (and does still, increasingly infrequently, occasionally write his own movies), he’s very much a director now, more interested in approaching every movie as a problem with an interesting solution than a statement of self. (This is in no way a criticism; he’s one of my favorite working directors, and “personal filmmaking” as a goal in and of itself is overvalued.)
Perhaps that’s why Spalding Gray is so important to him: The bulk of Gray’s work lies in a series of monologues about nothing but his life. He was his own main subject, foregrounding himself in a way that Soderbergh’s either uninterested or incapable of. And Everything Is Going Fine is Soderbergh’s third engagement with Gray, having cast him in King of the Hill and filmed one of his monologues (Gray’s Anatomy). Gray, of course, is no longer with us, having committed suicide a few years ago; Fine is composed entirely out of video footage of Gray, assembled to have him tell the story of his own life: It’s celebration, anthology and eulogy all in one. Pace a friend who’d seen it at Slamdance and told me it was “just a clip show,” it’s certainly true that those who don’t find Gray interesting will find nothing to see here. Personally I dig him (I saw him do “Morning Noon and Night,” but was a bit too young to remember it in any great detail), but it’s true there’s something initially off-putting about a clearly patrician New Englander deciding he can keep your full attention for an hour-and-a-half with nothing but tales of his life (a life famous only for being told, no less).
But Gray was a great raconteur, treading the edges of theater. As an actor in the late ’60s, he became frustrated with what he perceived as the staidness and anti-experimental tendencies of most theater; that he could perform as himself was a slow and eventual discovery. I have a mental block about live theater (can’t stand it, mostly), but Gray’s stuff never seemed like theater; it seemed effortless, like stand-up comedy punctuated with epiphanies. An illusion, sure, but a remarkably persuasive one.
Besides whittling down some 90 hours of footage into 93 minutes of biography, Fine accomplishes several other things in passing (though it is, by design, somewhat inscrutable about its intent). Soderbergh’s married to former E! anchor Jules Asner, and the use of Gray’s appearances on that network, MTV, CBS and “Charlie Rose” (mostly apparently from the ’90s) underscore how quickly damn near every non-fiction TV show has become over-edited by default: I’d forgotten that 15 years ago, it was still possible to do a straight sit-down interview somewhere other than a morning show. (Similarly, this is nothing if not a guided tour of the increasing sharpness of video/digital formats, which seems to be a continual working obsession of Soderbergh’s.)
But Gray is, of course, the whole show, both as he intended and now, sadly, as someone you watch over the course of a lifetime exhibiting increasing suicidal tendencies; if you’re so inclined, this is a fairly devastating gutpunch of a film. You also observe his progression as a showman. His ’80s days have the nerviness of a comedian ready and eager for hecklers; here the illusion of watching someone talk directly to you spontaneously is unbreachable. The ’90s saw Gray with a magnificent white mane of hair and a manner that was a little more overtly theatrical: His pauses for effect and timing are more overt, his calculated maturity and meaningfulness leaving him still hypnotic but a trifle more complacent. And then there’s the devastating last act, when an auto accident left him limping and in need of surgery: A last interview (filmed by Barbara Kopple) sees him as sharp and absorbing as ever, but shockingly disheveled and indifferent to his appearance, as stringy and exhausted looking as a cancer patient. I have no idea how much of this is Soderbergh’s work and how much editor Susan Littenberg’s, but either way the fact that this is a film that recuts Gray’s meticulously timed words into its own pace is no mean feat.
Greetings from the Woods (Mikel Cee Karlson, 2009)
Opening shot: Martial music, an obese man driving along in a paper gold crown and Viking toga. He walks into a convenience store, buys a newspaper, has some local kids yell “Suck my dick, gold king!” at him. Cut to: Wide-eyed tracking shots through a suburban neighborhood, scored to dreamy music. We’ve been here before: Edward Scissorhands, American Beauty and all the rest of the movies that try to defamiliarize the suburbs. Then, suddenly, the shot stops, the music’s cut off and off screen we hear a conversation between the driver/director and a neighbor curious to know what the hell is going on. We’ve been making a movie about people who live around here for two years, the driver says. “That should be interesting,” says the neighbor.
As it turns out, it’s not. Greetings From The Woods is a strange film, one which seems conceptually dedicated to observing boredom in all its banal textures. The Viking’s a false lead: Most of the people we meet have nothing special about them (the biggest focus being on the long-married couple whose husband works at a warehouse—director Mikel Cee Karlsson’s parents, though you’d never know that from just the film), and the movie just ticks along. There are occasional startling interjections—cf. a lovely time-lapse shot of the couple sleeping on separate beds, initially only illuminated by twin digital clocks on either side—but mostly this is very banal stuff indeed. Hypnotically so, in fact: I guess I’m interested in conceptual boredom, even if this was the only movie I saw that garnered walkouts.
I can’t really explain why this film is the way it is, though I have a few theories. One thing to note is that music video directors—whose shoots often require precision and elaborate planning—seem to go crazy with the deliberately nothing-looking handheld camera aesthetic when they’re liberated from creating a flashy product (it’s certainly true of, say, a lot of Gondry’s work, though the ugliness conceals really elaborate effects); I suppose this movie’s one way of blowing off steam.
But the only way I can make thematic sense of the movie is to note that throughout the film, a still photographer wanders, snapping anyone and everyone. At the end, we see him looking through his stills, each of which seem to capture that elusive moment of truth and portraiture so many photographers strive for. The photographs insist that these people are special, distinctive, quirky and alive; the movie tells us that no, they’re actually just as boring and bored as anyone else. I guess I can get behind that, though this is really more a movie to think about (or perhaps overthink) than one to watch.