I mentioned in my Sundance wrap recently about this year’s edition marked my twentieth time writing about the festival. The year was 1992, an epochal moment for the festival, because of some of the films and filmmakers (Reservoir Dogs and Quentin Tarantino, especially) that premiered that year.
It was also revelatory because of the people you had a chance to meet. Sundance was a much looser affair back then. You’d introduce yourself to a director or actor, and figure out a time to talk and it was done fairly easily and without having to move through the gauntlet of agents or publicists you have to go through now just to get ten minutes with somebody. You had time, which you never there have anymore.
(An old friend was handling a film and its breakout star this year, and he got so tired and exhausted by the process and what he had to do every time a journalist inquired about some time with her that he simply gave me a look, and I knew immediately what he meant.)
One artist I met then and had a great time with was Spalding Gray. He was at the festival that year with the premiere of Nick Broomfield’s movie adaptation of his monologue, Monster in a Box. Spalding was also the master of ceremonies of the closing night awards that year. I arrived at the festival late that year, and I was trying desperately to catch up with some of the buzz titles. I caught glimpses of his “turn,” and it was hilarious and biting.
When all is said and one, how many monologuists do you meet in your life? I’ve been thinking a lot about my time with Spalding Gray since recently catching up with Steven Soderbergh’s superb (and very disquieting) And Everything is Going Fine, his documentary essay about Spalding Gray (Soderbergh also directed Gray’s Anatomy, Spalding’s subsequent monologue.) The material is culled from a lot of different sources, the most riveting a series of interviews the great filmmaker Barbara Kopple shot.
Spalding and I met at Sundance’s central hangout back then, the space that is now known as Harry O’s. Then it was called the Z Place. The date was Jan. 26, Super Bowl Sunday, the game between Washington and Buffalo.
I had a little bit of an in with Spalding because Jonathan Demme, the director of his groundbreaking monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, I had been spending a lot of professional time with around the same period because of two long profiles I’d been working on about the actor Ted Levine (the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs) and the artist and actor Tony Fitzpatrick.
You find out right away how easy or hard an interview is going to be, how open and accessible they are. Spalding was about as easy an interview was possible. You point your tape recorder at him, and just let him go. One of the things I remembered him talking about was how influential he thought he was on the style of Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, especially given it was the first Demme film that drew extensively on the close up.
Monster in a Box was Spalding’s thirteenth monologue. It was a painfully funny and dead on satire of late twentieth century life, concerning Nicaragua fact-finding tours, California earthquakes, Hollywood, the difficulty of finding vodka in the crumbling former Soviet Union.
The title monster was neither metaphorical nor imagery; it was the nineteen-hundred page manuscript he’d been working on for more than four years, the autobiographical novel that evolved, rather painstakingly, into Impossible Vacation, which Knopf published.
The movie version of Monster in a Box and the publication of Impossible Vacation happened fairly simultaneous, as I remember. I ended up using the basis of our interview to write about Spalding and his art for a Chicago daily I contributed to at the time. I’ve tried repeatedly over the years to find the entire text of our interview or the original tape, especially during the time of Spalding‘s death. I never had any luck. I did, fortunately, come across a print copy of the original profile. I have been able to reconstruct large parts of our talk.
On that day, Spalding was generous and accommodating. “I am egocentric,” he began. “I’m very solipsistic. I work from mining myself, and I think that could be repulsive to people who can’t be above it. I’m only a person of action when I have a place of reflection to balance it.
“In the monologue, the stories go from the book to what took me away from the book, so you’re getting stories within stories. I’m being propelled out by the pain of that story. Basically what the text is really about, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, is the dizziness that comes from too much possibility.
“Swimming to Cambodia had just come out at the time I was trying to work on the book, and so many people proposed so many different projects and I just said yes to all of them. I collapsed under that and was unable to complete them.”