Criterion Corner Review: Steven Soderbergh and the Original 'Gray's Anatomy'

Criterion Corner Review: Steven Soderbergh and the Original 'Gray's Anatomy'

Jun 26, 2012

#617: AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE (dir. Steven Soderbergh) 2010

#618: GRAY'S ANATOMY (dir. Steven Soderbergh) 1997  

On March 7, 2004, a 28 year-old internet developer named Robin Snead found Spalding Gray’s body down by the Brooklyn waterfront. Complete happenstance. After learning that the waterlogged corpse was that of the famous monologist, Snead called Gray’s wife. In a piece for Esquire Magazine, this is how Snead described their conversation:

“I get in touch with his wife, and I mentioned that I’d never try to exploit my discovery. She said, ‘No, please, do whatever you like. You don’t have to be tasteful. This is Spalding Gray. All he ever talked about was his own death.’”

Spalding Gray was not a man of much suspense. His monologue Gray’s Anatomy, adapted into a film by Steven Soderbergh, orbits around a major ocular issue that threatened to deprive Gray of his eyesight, or worse, his eyeball. But from the moment Gray appears on camera, it is perfectly evident that he escaped the ordeal with his vision intact. Imagine if The King’s Speech were fluidly narrated by Colin Firth. His suicide wasn't a suprise, it was his final story, and Gray would rather die than allow someone else to tell it for him. Of his life, only the particulars of his death retain an enduring sense of mystery, as if Gray was keen not to bequeath the fatal details so that another storyteller might come along and vividly piece things together.

All the same, the story goes that Spalding Gray decided to commit suicide immediately after watching Tim Burton’s Big Fish. He had gone to see it the night before he disappeared. According to his wife, the film gave Gray “permission to die.” Its final words: A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.” It’s believed that Spalding Gray, 63 years-old and suffering from a smattering of injuries sustained in a 2001 car crash, slipped himself over the side of a Staten Island Ferry. For Gray's fans, the saddest thing about his death is that he's not around to talk about it, anymore.

Spalding Gray was a reasonably accomplished actor (he was certainly prolific), but watching Soderbergh’s tribute film And Everything is Going Fine, it’s hard not to think that Gray’s gifts were wasted on other characters, as he was already living the role he was born to play. Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t a good actor, he was just too much of an iconoclast to be any good as a chameleon -- whereas an actor's traditional metric for success lies in making the audience forget that they're playing a part, Gray’s gift was in makng his audience forget that the part was playing him. His life gave shape to his monologues, and his monologues gave shape to his life. Like a cross between Yukio Mishima and Woody Allen, Gray's life was his art and his art was his life, and one could not possibly be complete while the other continued.

Spalding Gray spent as much of his time talking about his life as he did living it, or so you might think until it clicks that, for Gray, there was no difference between the two. You don’t need to Wikipedia the details, he was perfectly happy to share them with you: Gray was born to a couple of Christian Scientists in Providence, Rhode Island. He came into this world on June 5, 1941, and some time later began to look like the manic brother Ralph Lauren pretended not to have, or a lanky Wallace Shawn, pinched from the forehead until he had a body so long that a chair on the stage of a black box theater could only tenuously contain it. He'd get up there with his lamp and a glass of water and pack himself into his office, sititng behind that table like a gun in its holster. He was married twice but one gets the sense that both of his wives would freely admit that Gray’s most consistent and mutually affectionate relationship was that which he shared with his own mortality. Tellingly one of his spouses became a psychotherapist soon after their split.

“Think about how many things you know just because your eyes tell you.”  Spalding Gray must speak several thousand words during Gray’s Anatomy, but these are the ones that most stick with me. “Reverse farting” runs a close second. In the early 1990s, Gray was diagnosed with what’s known as a macular pucker, a condition in which liquid leaks from your eye, and the macula (part of the retina) effectively becomes unstuck, lifting upwards like a drying contact lens. For most of us this would have been miserable, but for Gray it was material. 

Here’s a film about vision that effectively prohibits the viewer from seeing anything. Soderbergh, who felt that Gray was a kindred spirit (and cast him as a lead in King of the Hill), adapts Gray’s monologue in such a way as to tacitly deny the fundamental talents of the cinema, namely the camera and its infinite capacity to show what before we could only tell. Soderbergh dismisses the performative tics that dislocated the two pre-existing films to have been made from Gray’s monologues, removing a studio audience from the equation and effectively exploding the possibilities of what might be possible on that spartan black stage, where Gray sits behind his standard table with his standard glass of water, which here functions like a cipher to unlock the entire movie.  

Spalding Gray was a speaker, and speakers must also be drinkers. A glass of water was naturally a staple of Gray’s gigs, surely near the very the top of his tour rider, but Soderbergh was making a film that insisted on behaving like a film. His restlessly active camera wraps around Gray’s narration and squeezes its key points out like a meat-grinder in reverse, collecting four or five different strands of thought into a coherent and singularly filmic moment. Where Gray refuses to take a breath, tangents cascading out of his mouth about sweat lodges and sex godesses and visions of Richard Nixon,  Soderbergh uses primitive effects as punctuation -- smoke, scrims, and shapes lending Gray’s stories a shadowy physical reality, complimenting his words where more complex sets and -- gasp! -- other actors would have combatted them.

Gray’s Anatomy is a film that assumes audiences have a post-Lumiere understanding of how movies work -- Soderbergh uses cuts in a way that allows Gray to teleports into (ostensibly) new spaces (Gray’s black box thus allowed to function as a plastic mental space), and the expectation is that the viewer is sophisticated enough to understand that the monologist is not a wizard. In other words: Gray could have gotten a drink of water in between takes. But that glass of water sits on the table as if Gray needs it in order to continue -- he even pauses to drink from it.

Sure, it might be there as a crutch, but more pressingly it’s there as a prop, as a steady and explicitly visual reminder that you’re watching Spalding Gray, the monologist. That glass of water is a transient object from another world -- a totem, if you will -- that proves emblematic of how Soderbergh’s film hangs its subject in a seductively suspended reality. No matter how engrossed you find yourself in the character of Spalding Gray, that infernal glass of water is there to remind you that you’re ultimately just watching a man talking about himself (and to himself), that he is his art but his art is rooted in artifice, that this epically meandering story has a happy ending because he can see that glass of water as well as you can, and that the despair of a tragic story lies side-by-side with the ecstasy of great storytelling.

Now you see it, now you don’t -- one hand over your left eye, then that same hand over your right. Gray and Soderbergh stretch your attention between the sublime and the grotesque, the push and pull of it all forcing your gaze back and forth between them until your vision glazes over in the middle, Gray’s bald head popping up like a manically soothing Magic Eye image. When he defends his decision to ignore a doctor’s advice and pretend as if his eye condition wasn’t happening (“It was so frightening I thought I better forget about it”), it almost sounds like a good idea. I mean, how tragic can a story possibly be while you’re still in the process of telling it?

Of course, the inevitable problem is that a man like Spalding Gray can be a lot more fun to diagnose than he is to watch. He’s tireless and exasperating, a gifted enough storyteller that you can always find your way back in even once you’ve tuned out for a bit, but uncompromising enough that many won’t bother. Soderbergh’s visual schemes function like chapter breaks, so that you always know when to refocus (and they even add sly hints of genre, the climactic episode about a Filipino massage gone wrong plays out with the violent shadowboxing of a kung-fu scene). All the same, at 79 minutes Gray’s Anatomy couldn’t afford to be a moment longer, and the padding that Soderbergh provides in the form of footage in which various citizens detail their own ocular misadventures, does little more than underscore the extent to which verisimilitude is just another word for lying. 

And now here I am, some 1,500 or more words into this thing, and I’ve hardly mentioned And Everything is Going Fine, the tribute film that Soderbergh made six years after Gray’s death. It’s a brisk, comprehensive, and overwhelmingly moving compilation that allows Spalding Gray to eulogize himself. To that end, I have to imagine that Gray lived his entire life (and then ended it) in order for something like And Everything is Going Fine to exist, a crystalline distillation of his art, and therefore also his life. Soderbergh’s masterstroke was to forego talking heads -- the film consists of nothing but Spalding Gray performing various monologues, save for one slightly confessional interview towards the end.  Nevertheless, Soderbergh effectively does for Spalding Gray what Paul Schrader did for Yukio Mishima. The footage is judiciously edited, effective both as a requiem or as a primer, though I hesitate to suggest those new to Gray start here. Begin with Gray’s Anatomy, and if you like what you see go ahead and check out the bigger picture (that is, of course, if you’re not afraid to look). 

Gray is a character whose dynamic narcissism bloomed like a prescient legend for the 21st century, and it’s no controversial claim to say that he’s more relevant now than he ever was when he was alive. All the same, even if these films aren’t exactly your speed, there’s an undeniable thrill in watching someone play the role of a lifetime. 

THE TRANSFERS: Criterion’s edition of And Everything is Going Fine looks precisely how Steven Soderbergh wanted it to, maintaining the fidelity of the beat-up old tapes onto which Spalding Gray recorded his monologues. Preservation is the primary function of this transfer, and to that end it’s a job well done. Gray’s Anatomy looks so good that Gray might have been alarmed to see it, clear as a bell and fully committed to all of Soderbergh’s aesthetic modes.

THE EXTRAS: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the supplements on these discs are loaded with talking heads. The lion’s share of the good stuff is on the Gray’s Anatomy disc, which kicks off with an appealingly transparent Soderbergh interview, in which he chats about his relationship with Gray and what drew the two of them together. Renee Shafransky, who was both Gray’s partner and his collaborator, has an 18-minute interview of her own. Then, in what has to be a first for The Criterion Collection (and the known universe?), the disc includes 17 minutes of footage of Gray’s eventual eye surgery (spoiler alert?). And I’m not talking about his wife in the waiting room or anything like that, this is video of the nitty gritty, medical cameras capturing his eye in extreme close-up as it’s picked and peeled. It was edited together by Gray’s doctor, and it’s called Swimming to Macula. Amazing. The disc for And Everything is Going Fine includes a 21-minute making-of, which features Soderbergh and a few others discussing how the project came about, and how it was done right.

THE BEST BIT: Criterion has snuck a great deal of value into these two discs by including two complete monologues as bonus material, footage that’s as textually significant as Gray’s Anatomy, but shot from the dinky camera that Gray had someone hold from the back of the room. And Everything is Going Fine includes Sex and Death to the Age of 14, Gray’s first monologue, a brisk and gloriously candid 64 minutes that reveals a fully formed talent. Again, however, Criterion saves their best stuff for Gray’s Anatomy, which comes with a superb rendition of Gray’s hit monologue A Personal History of the American Theater, a 97-minute performance in which Gray ostensibly discusses the stage roles he’s played, but uses every one of them as an opportunity to pontificate about himself. It’s great, and it’s waiting for you in the depths of the disc like a monologist’s “Free bird.” 

THE ARTWORK: It’s a testament to Spalding Gray that Neil Kellerhouse’s predictably glorious design work isn’t the highlight of these releases. Kellerhouse’s original one-sheet for And Everything Is Going Fine serves as that film’s Criterion cover art, and it’s an amazing glimpse of Gray in suspended animation, the closest thing to capturing him mid-breath. The hazy, smoked over cover for Gray’s Anatomy is similarly perfect, and the booklets are lovingly littered with negatives and journals.

Visit the Criterion Corner blog for a peek under the cover art.

THE VERDICTS: Spalding Gray is one of the true originals, and a man whose plastic sense of identity both anticipated and perfectly articulates how we tick in the 21st century. It’s a great thing that these discs exist, even if they won’t be the first thing you reach for every time a friend drops by to watch a movie. Gray’s Anatomy is priced a little bit higher than And Everything is Going Fine, but it’s still the better value. 

GRAY’S ANATOMY: 87 / 100



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