Movie Review: The Director/Performer Bond in GRAY'S ANATOMY and AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE

0

Taken together, Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine display a striking symbiosis between director Steven Soderbergh and performer Spalding Gray.  Soderbergh, that most adventurous of American filmmakers, prides himself on never making the same kind of movie twice (a goal he has more or less achieved, provided you don’t count his Ocean’s Trilogy), yet something about Gray connected with him on such a primal level that he had to tell Gray’s story twice.  Maybe it was the monologist’s candor, his theatrical élan, the way he – like Soderbergh – viewed life as a wooly, perplexing creature that only gained definition when confined into narrative structure.

How interesting, then, that Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine show both men at exactly the same points in their respective careers.  For Gray, Gray’s Anatomy represents the peak of his creative labors.  Soderbergh shot this filmed version in 1997, five years after Gray first brought the monologue to the stage, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the laser-honed intensity Gray gives the movie.

As he recounts how a disturbing ocular condition (a macular pucker, for those playing our home game) emerged in his left eye after his fiftieth birthday, Gray races around the world (from New York to the Midwest to the Philippines and back again), delving into alternative medication and his own psyche like some febrile mix of a sociologist and a hummingbird.  He changes locations, zips in and out of characters, drops ironic asides, ponders the big questions (what does it all mean?  what’s the nature of art and life?  how does one make sense of chaos?), free-associates, despairs.  There’s something remarkably improvisational and composed about his whole performance, and I’d wager the half-decade separating theater from film gave Gray that quality.  By 1997, he’d memorized this piece down to the cellular level, meaning he could manipulate its notes like a jazz pianist, and in doing so, Gray’s Anatomy finds a kind of artistic perfection, gained only through this narrative experimentation.

So it goes with Soderbergh.  In 1997, the bloom had well faded off his initial filmic triumph, 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape; audiences and critics just weren’t responding to his post-sex output (The Underneath, Kafka, the criminally underrated King of the Hill).  Soderbergh felt himself floundering, so he made the only logical decision.

He rebooted his programming.

Goodbye moody introspection, hello post-modern experimentation and Schizopolis. Schizopolis barely qualifies as a movie – it’s more like what “Saturday Night Live” might look like if Timothy Leary, Philip K. Dick, and Franz Kafka replaced Lorne Michaels – but its energy is bracing, and it blew Soderbergh out of his own slump.  Gray’s Anatomy sees him harnessing that creativity without extinguishing it; though the picture casts a strikingly expressionistic eye on Gray’s work (Soderbergh has Gray sit at his default theatrical position – a simple desk, adorned with a microphone – in front of fluid, mutable backdrops and hallucinatory lighting), it serves at the pleasure of the great performer.  Soderbergh binds himself to the text, which means that Gray’s methods of ordering chaos forces Soderbergh to order his own.  As such, on a purely cinematic level, Gray’s Anatomy is one of the great experimental films: loose and rigorous, crazed and composed, profound and pretentious.  Furthermore, without it, we’d have no Out of Sight, no Traffic, no The Limey or Erin Brockovich or, yes, the Ocean’s Eleven pictures.

By comparison, And Everything is Going Fine appears almost sedate.  Created six years after Gray’s death (he drowned after jumping off the Staten Island Ferry), Soderbergh structures the film as an oral autobiography; using rare performance, home movie, and interview footage, he lets Gray take viewers from his childhood in Barrington, Rhode Island, to the aftermath of the grisly 2002 automobile accident that he barely survived.  Cinematically, Soderbergh is still playing with the frame – this essentially chronological tale unspools nonlinearly, as Gray’s age and appearance fluctuate depending on the date of the footage – but we don’t register this trick because the story being told follows a clear and logical path.

But here’s the thing: Gray was already gone when Soderbergh assembled the film, giving this final “monologue” the texture of a eulogy.  It isn’t just Gray reflecting on his life; it’s Soderbergh trying to make sense of his friend’s death.  And something more: it’s Soderbergh sympathizing, all too acutely, with the pain of losing one’s craft and sullen art.  In 2008, Soderbergh suffered the costly failure of his two-part Che biopic, a five-hour epic that consumed his creative energies only to yield little fanfare and outright derision.  Che humbled the director, and not necessarily for the better; he lost his confidence and started musing about retiring from directing or – at the very least – abstaining from the more outré structural and aesthetic inventions that made his Schizopolis to Che period such as trip.

When he made And Everything is Going Fine in 2010, I think he had a deeper link to Gray’s own struggles than if Che had succeeded.  And Everything is Going Fine doesn’t describe Gray’s death, but it doesn’t need to; Soderbergh shows home movies of Gray post-accident, and it’s clear that a) the spark is gone, and b) Gray knows it.  His beloved “Interviewing the Audience” session turns into a sullen, rambling confessional, and he futilely tries to validate his newfound lack of mobility and creative inspiration (at one point, he calls being waited on “kind of a treat” and then has to stop himself from crying).  At the beginning of And Everything is Going Fine, Gray tells an unseen interviewer that he enjoyed the process of describing life more than living it, and once he loses that ability to do even that….

It’s the artist’s death, and to Steven Soderbergh and Spalding Gray, there’s nothing more terrifying.

Criterion’s respective Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine Blu-rays both honor the source materials; Gray’s is sharper and more filmic, while And Everything toggles between film stocks of varying quality (8mm, 16mm, 35mm, digital).  They look the way they should look.  Regarding the audio, Gray’s gets a surprisingly immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, while And Everything gets a solid – if limited – monaural LPCM track.

Bonus supplements are essential for Spalding Gray fans.  Each Blu-ray gets some great behind-the-scenes featurettes (recent interviews with Soderbergh and Gray’s ex-lover Renée Shafransky on Gray’s Anatomy; “The Making of And Everything is Going Fine” on the likewise titled feature), but the real gold comes from two additional Spalding Gray monologues.  Gray’s Anatomy gets the ninety-five-minute A Personal History of the American Theater (recorded in 1982), while And Everything is Going Fine showcases Gray’s sixty-four-minute debut piece, Sex and Death to the Age 14.  The A/V quality is rough but certainly watchable/listenable, and the performance pieces themselves are vintage, brilliant Gray.  The Blu-rays also have trailers and booklets (Amy Taubin on Gray’s Anatomy; Nell Casey on And Everything is Going Fine), and Gray Anatomy includes the “Swimming to the Macula” surgery video that Gray references.

I had such a powerful reaction to these films; the level of artistic questing, of creative association, is staggering, as is the bond joining Gray to Soderbergh.

Both Gray’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine are now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE and HERE for Amazon’s listings.

You might also like More from author