In an interview for the “Making of…” featurette for And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh confesses that wanting penance for being a bad friend was one of his primary motivations for undertaking the project. It is plain when watching the documentary, which honors and showcases the one-man stage show performances of Spalding Gray, that regret, melancholy and a deep love were crucial compositional elements. This is a cinematic apology and tribute crafted by a filmmaking genius to a friend who died.
This is not to suggest that And Everything is Going Fine is elegiac or mournful; rather, it is funny, even bawdy. Its 89-minute run time was culled from nearly 100 hours of video-recorded Gray performances and television interviews. Soderbergh and his collaborating editor on the project, Susan Littenberg, decided to select the footage that was most humorous for the film. The Gray they remember—both were personal friends and had each collaborated with Gray in the making of Soderbergh’s 1996 Gray’s Anatomy—was a hilarious, engaging storyteller. This is the Gray they constructed from the “found footage” for And Everything is Going Fine.
The film is organized biographically chronologically, telling the story of Spalding Gray’s life from childhood through the car accident that his friends blame for his suicide. The voice for this recounting is Gray’s own. His narration of his own life story comes mostly from his signature “Monologue” performances, which involved Gray sitting at a table with a glass of water telling entertaining stories to a live audience. The rest of And Everything is Going Fine is still Gray talking about himself, but in interviews for television rather than in stage performances. There is no direct intervention by Soderbergh, no interviews and no footage that is not of Gray himself talking. The various fragments all vary in picture quality, making a somewhat disjointed viewing experience, which is, of course, a signature Soderbergh flourish.
The documentary begins with Gray’s childhood in ‘50s Rhode Island, with a mentally-ill mother that he cherished. Gray’s mother eventually committed suicide when he was a young adult, a harbinger hanging over the rest of And Everything is Going Fine, which must end, of course, with Gray’s own suicide in January 2004, when he leaped from the Staten Island ferry. Viewing the scenes of him describing his mother’s death in the film mirror the feeling of today watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Andy snorting cocaine in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; it is a discomfiting, wildly uncomfortable experience of pregnant dread that produces a deep panging ache for the person on screen.
This is the narrative power of And Everything is Going Fine. The viewer knows much more than the star of the show. We know how it is going to end. When Gray is uproariously and frenetically recalling a visit to see his father and his step-mother, for instance, he narrates a half-dozen minor catastrophes about the visit that were all papered over by his father’s insistent refrain: “And everything is going fine.” Watching this eponymous scene, we laugh—it is undeniably hilarious—but we also cringe, for it is a rather bald metaphor of the performer himself. The film’s closing scene clinches this, featuring an interview of an exhausted Gray admiring a distant dog’s howl, jealously calling it a “lamentation.” A lamentation cannot be performed; it is too primal, too authentic for that. Gray, always a performer, just listens, eyes closed, and it is difficult not to read a yearning on his part to express such genuine emotion. We know what happens next.
Throughout And Everything is Going Fine our teleological privilege makes us read between the lines, rendering what is otherwise a rather mundane subject—there are, after all, experimental theatre performances and master storytellers in every town in the United States—into something that speaks to the human condition. This elevation of the material to a higher plain of expression and experience is no surprise. Soderbergh is, after all, a cinematic genius.