In a particularly manic passage from one of Spalding Gray’s extended autobiographical monologues, the actor and writer relates the story of how, after his mother’s suicide, his father attempted to create a perfect new life with another woman. As the story builds to a verbal crescendo, and as the imperfections and cracks in his father’s carefully constructed world surface within Gray’s stream-of-consciousness barrage, he periodically inserts one particular phrase — a mantra meant to indicate his father’s denial that there might actually be anything wrong: “And everything is going fine …”
It’s a fitting quote for Steven Soderbergh to lift for the title of his documentary about Spalding Gray, who died in 2004 in an apparent suicide. Under the careful composure and grace in Gray’s monologues bellows the emotional turmoil and familial dysfunction that he often described with frighteningly exacting precision. In devising an appropriate summation of his subject’s life, Soderbergh decides to just let Gray do what he always did best: tell his story.
In doing this, however, Soderbergh seems to set himself up for a monumental filmmaking challenge: Can a life’s story be told exclusively in the words of the deceased, with no aid from secondary sources of any kind, and in a way that also makes some sense of his death?
At first this approach makes the film feel something like a highlight reel, a disconnected clip collection without narration, intertitles or much context to link together the bits of film and video culled from various points in Gray’s career.
However, much like Gray’s feverish orations, from the clip collection chaos, a structure emerges; the film becomes a roughly chronological autobiography, built in the editing room mostly from Gray’s monologues, along with a handful of interviews. Choosing carefully from the many hours of material at his disposal, Soderbergh imposes a shape until the film begins to feel less like puzzle pieces in search of their place and more like one seamless picture. And perhaps I, being such a big fan of Gray’s work, am looking for something more in Soderbergh’s documentary, but with this collage of the artist’s past work, Soderbergh may have created Gray’s final posthumous monologue.
Since Gray was tireless in talking about himself — the man described what he did in many terms, one of them being “creative narcissism” — there’s no shortage of wittily related stories that hit the major touchstones, giving Soderbergh a wealth of biographical information from which to use. What makes And Everything’s Going Fine a triumph is that Soderbergh achieves the amazing feat of extracting and parsing together the clips that peek deeper into Gray’s mind to reveal the tempestuous riptide roaring beneath Gray’s anecdotes. It is in these brief but haunting moments that guide lead the narrative to a point where Gray’s premature death seems almost inevitable.
It’s not just hearing Gray talk about how his mother consulted him for advice on her method of suicide. And it’s not merely that we witness Gray’s own father reflecting, with cruel nonchalance, on his disbelief that his son was ever able to hack it as an actor. As in the making of any movie, Soderbergh makes those brief silences between Gray’s words resonate. Almost as if directing Gray posthumously, Soderbergh takes care to use clips in which some expression or nonverbal cue from Gray reveals something extra, something below the surface and behind the words – a thought or feeling that even the verbose Spalding Gray cannot articulate.
Toward the end, in footage from an interview conducted not long before his death, Gray seems visibly shaken by the mournful baying of a dog in a nearby yard. In that moment, it’s quite clear that everything is far from fine. Taken out of the context of And Everything’s Going Fine, the clip might not seem so portentous; here, however, one suddenly feels witness to the wavering of a uniquely creative light.