Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thinking About Spalding Gray - A New Book and Film

I was extremely heartened to see that Stephen Soderbergh's documentary about Spalding Gray, And Everything is Going Fine (I finally caught  it streaming on Netflix), included one of the final moments from his monologue, Morning Noon and Night, where Spalding, a relatively new and late-in-life father, after a long day, is at home with his family and is slowly swept up into an impromptu dance with his wife and kids to a song from Cumbawamba. It is a goofy and wonderfully uninhibited moment. I remember seeing this monologue when he performed it in Seattle over twelve years ago and this moment of freedom, joy and optimism that he captured as he took a rare step out from behind his wooden table to gyrate in front of us with a boom box in his hands was a much needed tonic for a long time fan like myself.

Gray's previous monologue (which I saw a few years before in Seattle), It's a Slippery Slope, discussed some extremely personal issues (affairs, infidelities, etc) and was one of his darkest pieces to date as it displayed a worn out, depressed Spalding Gray who seemed to be having a hard time finding even a hint of silver lining in any aspect of his life. As Gray's work progressed through the years the time frame between the events he discussed and the monologues he preformed grew shorter and shorter. Its possible that he didn't have the distance on this darker personal material yet, but went ahead and put it into a show anyway, as that is what he had trained himself to do. Whatever the reason for this unrepentant and humorless public baring of his soul, it was he first time that many of us looked back on his earlier topics of self-doubt, sexual experimentation, self-loathing and suicide and thought twice about the Spalding Gray we thought we knew.

What that joyous moment and the end of Morning, Noon and Night seemed to confirm was that he had come back, He had gone to a dark place but had returned. After all, that was the great appeal of his performances. He would discuss the most humiliating, awful, silly, horrific and mundane aspects of his thoughts and experiences and show an ability to have gained perspective on them; to have learned a bit from them; to be able to laugh at himself; to be able to wish optimistically to be a better person tomorrow. We lost that in It's a Slippery Slope and got it back like a warm hug in Morning Noon and Night

After his death in 2004, we saw that the glimpse of the darker and less filtered side of his psyche we witnessed in It's a Slippery Slope was a lot closer to the private Spalding Gray than many of us wanted to imagine. The release of The Journals of Spalding Gray and the Soderbergh documentary only confirm this fact.

These two important compositions of archival material are as rich and satisfying as they are incomplete and frustrating. Both aim to and succeed in giving us a piece of the man we were all denied when he was alive. That we might not have wanted to get to know that piece that much better is an inevitable regret.

Editor Nell Casey's work on The Journals is accomplished and thorough. She digs deep and provides wonderful context to these random entries from Gray's personal writings. The anecdotes she provides between the journal entries act as the beginnings of a biography of Gray, one that I hope she or another equally fine writer continues someday. Yet the journals themselves show a less confident Spalding Gray; a man who is at war with his place in the world. They give us access to extremely intimate aspects of his thoughts and life that are as uncomfortable to read about as they clearly were written as a personal self-therapy session, not as a vehicle to share himself with a wider public.

The film And Everything is Going Fine has no voice over or any other context providing device. It is composed entirely of footage  (all archival - none from his major films) of Gray's monologues and interviews the performer gave over the years. The focus here , however, is really less on the evolution and career of an artist but an attempt at a biography of the personal man. All the clips really focus on the timeline of Gray's life. The result is at once a welcome additional piece to the complex jigsaw puzzle portrait of Spalding Gray we have been trying to complete ever since his death, yet also an almost claustrophobic portrayal, in its refusal to step outside of the man and show the impact of his work on others.

What I missed most from both of these works was the joy and inspiration that Spalding Gray's art brought to my life. Great live theater is a transcending and cathartic experience. Spalding Gray understood that and in the majority of his pieces wrestled his most personal excursions and philosophies into artwork that made his audience laugh, cheer, 
squirm, gasp,sit and think. 

I suppose its inevitable that I wanted so much more from these two pieces. Loss does that to you. I miss Spalding Gray and I continue to wish that there was some way that the moment of carefree dancing to the ridiculous Chumbawamba could have sustained him and kept him with us for further tales. I assume this is merely the first wave in what will be a healthy ongoing retrospective of the man and his career. I hope that someone can create a piece that honors all that he gave us and not just the sadness he left behind.


  1. I really like your perspective. Maybe the Box Set (no release date) will satisfy some of your desires.
    I will post this blog under Fan Writings on
    Thank you again
    webmanager for the Estate of Spalding Gray