Life after death

Steven Soderbergh charts the melancholy of Spalding Gray

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COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM "I like telling the story of life better than I do living it," Spalding Gray explains in Steven Soderbergh's And Everything Is Going Fine, a tribute to the late performer that cobbles together interviews and scenes from Gray's trademark autobiographical monologues (including the award-winning Swimming to Cambodia, made into a film in 1987). Without using a narrator or any other talking heads, Everything emerges a poignant portrait — and a masterful work of editing, considering the man left hours and hours of storytelling behind.

"Behind," that is, when he committed suicide in 2004. Everything doesn't mention Gray's death, but it looms over the whole movie, particularly since Gray — whose mother killed herself in 1967 — was fascinated by mortality. It's hard to accuse Soderbergh of deliberately culling foreboding clips, since death (Gray's mother's, and fantasies about his own demise) was a theme the performer revisited obsessively.

That's not to say he was totally without joy. He lights up when discussing his love of acting, sparked early in life and encouraged by a teacher who remarked on "Spud's" excellent timing. Though he mostly kept to the stage ("I'm an inverted method actor. I was using myself to play myself. I was playing with myself!"), he did appear in several films — he met Soderbergh when the director cast him as a (suicidal) character in 1993's King of the Hill; Soderbergh also directed the film version of performance piece Gray's Anatomy (1996). The birth of Gray's first child — a typically overwrought life experience since his baby mama wasn't his long-term partner, but a woman he'd been having an affair with — turned the self-absorbed Gray on his head. He married his son's mother and built a life with her, her daughter from a previous relationship, their first son, and their soon-to-arrive second son.

Though Gray did most of his monologues seated behind a desk, there's a performance excerpt in Everything where he recreates his family having a spontaneous dance party to Chumbawumba's "Tub Thumper." It's a transcendently playful moment, and the audience erupts into stunned applause when a grinning Gray shuffles back behind his desk.

But as Gray fans know, the famously morbid storyteller wasn't demon-free for long: a gruesome 2001 car accident while vacationing in Ireland left him physically mangled and mentally shaken. Three years later, he took his fateful last trip on the Staten Island Ferry. With the blessing of Gray's widow, Soderbergh took on the mighty task of telling his friend's life story; like Gray, Everything's a downer, but moving, and not without thought-provoking after effects. 

AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE opens Fri/18 at the Sundance Kabuki.

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