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.”
We talked about the Wooster Group, the radical and experimental theater troupe that he founded with Elizabeth LeCompte and the autobiographical trilogy, Three Places in Rhode Island. “I think I had a stepping ladder of people who influenced me in different ways that fed into me finding my own form,” he said. His dominant influences, he said, were the American autobiographic novelists Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac, Robert Wilson’s experimental theater, T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party and “John Cage’s haiku stories about the details of everyday life.”
It was his singular yoking together the memories, incidents, ideas and images that gave his work such a rhythmic and musical texture. The writing was not easy, he told me. He never performed the monologues in advance, and they were continuously revived and expanded on from a detailed outline.
“It’s an awful struggle,” he told me about the writing process. “It’s lonely, and I don’t feel at home with the formalized word. I’d much rather deal with the spoken word. I stand to be more intelligent in front of an audience than being in a room. I can think more creatively.”
I was at Sundance again seven years ago just after the horrible news that Spalding took his own life. One of the people I talked there about Spalding was the pioneering art-house distributor Ira Deutchman, who was instrumental in shaping Spalding’s career, because he distributed both the Demme film during his time running Cinecom Pictures and Monster in a Box as the founding executive of Fine Line features. Ira pointed out how the iconic poster art of Swimming, Spalding being swallowed in the current, took on a bleak irony given the tragic circumstances of his death.
Sex and his own mortality coursed through his work. But the man and artist I met that day seemed absolutely enthralled by the wonder and possibility of it all. The funniest line in Monster, for me, was that he refused to fly on any airline in which the pilot believed in reincarnation.
Gray’s mother killed herself in 1967 when he was on vacation in Mexico. The novel, he told me, was “an autobiographical work about my relationship to my mother. She was having a nervous breakdown, and I ran from it to do theater.
“The book is about the expiation and punishment the protagonist Brewster North puts himself through not being able to take pleasure in his life.”
I never saw any of Spalding’s pieces in person. I truly regret that. A.O. Scott pointed out, rightly, in his review of the Soderbergh film: “Here is a description of some of the most innovative and important American theater of the last quarter of the 20th century. A man sits at a table and starts talking. If he has props, they are minimal — a spiral notebook, a record player, a box of pictures — and his costume is correspondingly modest, consisting usually of a flannel shirt, blue jeans or chinos, and sneakers. He speaks mostly about himself, digressing from anecdotes about his childhood and professional life into more serious confessional territory, though always with reserve and good humor.”
On that January day nineteen years ago, Spalding Gray was even more open, direct and unguarded. It is hard to reconcile my memories of the portrait captured by Kopple and Soderbergh a decade later. In that moment he was as good as it gets. What made his work beautiful and thrilling was how complicit he made you in the process.
“The monologues are so static, but the audience is making their own films in their heads. As you watch this, you create your own cinematic language.” So we did, and because of him, and watching Sodbergh's work, that language remains as alive and riveting as ever.