Saturday, January 16, 2010
One Singular Auteur, Through Another
STEVEN SODERBERGH’S modus operandi is that no film he makes is like anything he’s made before. The one exception has been the “Ocean” series, which from first (“Ocean’s Eleven”) to last (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) was designed to make money and did. But once Mr. Soderbergh could add that particular genre of moviemaking to his résumé — in Hollywood, the franchise is a genre — he put it aside and returned to being the consummate anti-auteurist auteur, bouncing from the guerrilla epic “Che” to the coolly soft-core “Girlfriend Experience” to the comic corporate exposé “The Informant!”
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Mr. Soderbergh observed that his career would have been easier if he had been able to make himself into a more marketable brand. Instead, he said with some relish, he’s like that “imported mustard that you buy at Trader Joe’s.”
His latest movie will not be any help in the branding department. It is his smallest and most modest feature-length work, one in which his hand is nowhere evident, except in his refusal to employ the rules specific to its genre: the documentary biopic. The subject of the film, “And Everything Is Going Fine” — which has its premiere next Saturday at Slamdance in Utah — is the monologuist-writer-actor Spalding Gray.
Some months after Gray’s death (a presumed suicide by drowning) in 2004, Mr. Soderbergh had heard that Kathleen Russo, Gray’s widow, was interested in making some kind of documentary about her husband. Mr. Soderbergh, who had directed the film of Gray’s monologue “Gray’s Anatomy” (1996), told Ms. Russo he’d like to be involved.
“Kathie thought there was something to be done with all the material that was left,” he said. “I knew from the first that I was never going to shoot anyone talking about him, as there would be in a conventional documentary, but I thought there might be some place for his journals, either read by other actors or as text on the screen. I paid to have 25 years of them transcribed before I became convinced it had to be, literally, just his voice.”
Over the course of three years Mr. Soderbergh and his editor Susan Littenberg distilled about 15 hours of film and video recordings of Gray’s performances, his television interviews and home movies of his childhood and his life with Ms. Russo and their children. The resulting 90-minute collage opens with a clip from his first monologue, “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” and ends with a faded image of the infant Spalding wrapped in his mother’s arms.
“Steven told me that he wanted Spalding to tell the story, as if it was his last monologue,” Ms. Russo said by phone from Sag Harbor, N.Y. “And I think he accomplished that.”
The title, “And Everything Is Going Fine,” is lifted from a comment Gray repeated like a refrain during one of his performances and reflects the way all of his monologues immediately plunge you into a drama in process. “I looked at his work as a stream that you can step into at any moment and sort of get what’s going on,” Mr. Soderbergh said. He said he stepped into Gray’s stream of consciousness himself when he saw Jonathan Demme’s 1987 film of Gray’s best-known monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.”
“When I saw ‘Swimming,’ I had the sensation that I assume a lot of people did: that my mind works like that too. The constant spinning and digressing and organizing seemed so genuine. I identified with the struggle to filter experience in such a way that it at least seems to make sense, which is an ongoing, sometimes futile process.”
While Gray’s body of work is the inverse of Mr. Soderbergh’s, in that all of his monologues are part of on continuing autobiographical impulse, Gray’s achronological storytelling has had an influence on Mr. Soderbergh’s most formally ambitious films like “The Limey” and “Che,” which collapse memory and prophecy into an extremely active present.
After reading Gray’s 1992 roman à clef “Impossible Vacation,” Mr. Soderbergh offered Gray a role in his third feature, “King of the Hill,” partly because he wanted to know more about how Gray’s mind worked. “And Everything Is Going Fine” has a clip of Gray describing the phone call during which Mr. Soderbergh asked him to be in the movie.
Mr. Soderbergh told Gray that, like the protagonist of “Impossible Vacation” (a barely disguised version of Gray named Brewster North), the character he wanted Gray to play was ruled by regret. Mr. Soderbergh also told him that the character commits suicide, which, as Gray recounted it, clinched the deal.
“What’s so bizarre in all this,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “was the central role suicide played in his life.” Gray’s mother committed suicide when she was 52, and his work is haunted by his memory of that act and his fear that he would be compelled to repeat it. “It’s right at the core of the work, and it’s discussed in such a wide-ranging way,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “And maybe that’s what frightened me when I heard about his accident.”
In 2001 Gray was in a car wreck that fractured his skull and crushed his hip. “You didn’t have to be a genius,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “to know that Spalding’s equilibrium was very precarious, and I was really scared that this would weaken his ability to sort things out in the way that he always did, by working.”
Mr. Soderbergh said he shared what he described as Gray’s need “to keep making art in order to get out of bed in the morning.” So he felt an admittedly irrational fear that what Gray suffered would somehow “splash onto him.” His anxiety was so great, he said, that he never made contact with Gray after the accident.
“I was totally absent in a way that is inexcusable to me,” he said. “And this entire movie is in part an act of contrition. The irony is that I spent the better part of three years immersed in something I tried to avoid. But as Spalding would say, ‘What are we to do with any of this except make a piece of art?’ ”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 11:02 PM