I never saw Spalding Gray live, and I’ve always regretted it. Oddly, the first time I ever noticed him was in The Killing Fields, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I learned acting in films wasn’t his primary gig — that instead, what he did was what he called “poetic journalism” or “autobiographical monologues.” For 90 minutes at a time (usually), he’d sit at a table and tell stories about himself, sometimes calling people from the audience up onto the stage with him to “interview” them and swap stories interactively.
A lot of these monologues never made it onto film (or, more specifically, they were filmed but never distributed to the masses), but the ones that did were all brilliant. Swimming to Cambodia (about making The Killing Fields) and Gray’s Anatomy (about his foray into the health care world after a rare eye disorder started to take out his vision) are probably the most famous of those. But even catching him periodically on talk shows was always an incredible experience.
This film, directed by his long-time friend Steven Soderburgh, is a compilation of clips from various monologues and talk shows, organized to tell, chronologically, the complete story of Spalding’s life. Knowing what we know about his death — for those who don’t know or have forgotten, Gray committed suicide about seven years ago — makes this an extremely difficult film to watch. A lot of Gray’s monologues talked about his experiences growing up with a severely mentally ill mother (she committed suicide herself at age 52), and his own struggles later in life with bipolar disorder. Hearing him talk about the fear he suffered through when he himself turned 52, for example — convinced he was going to kill himself that year too as part of his mother’s legacy — was almost unbearable in retrospect. Hard any time, of course, but so much harder knowing he finally lost that fight years later.
And yet, this film is also laugh-out-loud funny at times, too. Of course. Because that was Spalding Gray — he was this amazing mix of sadness and joy. He used his stories to make sense of the chaos in his life, and his willingness to share even the worst parts of himself with the world (he was, after all, also a sometimes-quite-awful narcissist) spoke to a quiet courage heightened all the more by this film’s focus on the most painful parts of his psyche.
Soderbergh has said he was afraid to go see Spalding after he was in a serious car accident that resulted in terrible chronic pain and brain damage for Gray — he was afraid Gray would lose his ability to sort out that chaos and would become suicidal, as he did, and he was afraid that urge to give in to the depression would rub off on him in some way. This film was his attempt to apologize to Gray, he has said, for not being there at the end. Mr. Soderburgh, I think you did a fine job.
The final clip in this film is of an older Spalding Gray, sitting outside talking while a dog in the distance starts to howl. He listens. He chuckles. He talks but is interrupted by the dog’s howl again. He listens some more. He chuckles again. The last line of the movie is Gray describing that howl, a pained smile wistfully flitting across his face: “It is a lamentation.”
I can’t seem to remember the title of this film — every time I’ve told someone about it since seeing it last Friday, I’ve had to just refer to it as “the new Spalding Gray movie” — but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that last line.
Genre: Documentary, Theater
Cast: Spalding Gray, directed by Steven Soderbergh