December 12, 2010

Dead Poets Society

by Steve Dollar

And Everything Is Going Fine

Dead men tell no tales, yet through the magic of the moving image they find a new kind of life, not in the flesh but the flickering resurrection of their own archives.

Spalding Gray left behind 120 hours of film and video when he died in January 2004, following a jump off the Staten Island Ferry, a fateful occurrence that came as a shock to the public. Family and friends of the actor and monologist had long coped with his suicidal tendencies, which had been aggravated by brain damage from a dreadful 2001 car crash in Ireland. The circumstances of the accident are touched on, and poignantly so, but the very end of Gray's life isn't part of And Everything Is Going Fine. Steven Soderbergh fashioned the new documentary out of old home movies, low-key documentary footage, TV interviews and ghosty videotapes of Gray's early performances in the late 1970s – before filmed versions of shows like Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box and the director's own Gray's Anatomy made Gray an unlikely household name beyond the downtown Manhattan avant-garde theater scene he helped to invent when he co-founded The Wooster Group in 1975.

And Everything Is Going Fine As such, the film deals only with Gray's life as it was recorded, which means that most of its 87 minutes consist of the artist talking about himself, since that's what he did, not just for a living but as a way to live, certainly as a form of therapy: a first-person talking cure as memoir as existential canvas. It wasn't all about him, of course. "I am not Samuel Beckett," Gray insisted. "I am not a navel gazer. Beckett's a great writer but I'm not a minimalist." More like a prism, a man whose native neuroses and acute sense of life's uncertainties refracted the world he experienced into dryly comic anecdotes. He used extreme candor and exquisite timing to transform the ordinary and the outrageous into something that felt true. The stories let him surf the chaos, whether the moments were absurd—the difficulty of rising to the occasion during an abbreviated career as a '70s porn performer—or tragic, as was the suicide of his mother at age 52, an incident that haunted his life and work and therefore this film, whose reflections on suicide foreshadow his own.

"And I am there with my mother in Rhode Island and she is going mad. She's having a nervous breakdown. She's tearing her hair out from the back of her head and I am trying to calm her down by reading to her from Alan Watts' book Psychotherapy East and West, laboring under that romantic idea of R.D. Laing's that every person who has a nervous breakdown is so lucky because they come out the other side of it with such great wisdom, provided they come out the other side. And I was trying to help my mother try to come out the other side but she wasn't listening to Alan Watts.

And Everything Is Going Fine The film's purity of approach is refreshing, with a patchwork of formats depicting Gray aging and rejuvenating back and forth, over and over again, even as the narrative follows a linear course. Because the monologues (and selective interviews) find Gray circling back to the same themes and memories repeatedly, the chronology can juxtapose the performer at different stages of life. The late '70s of Sex and Death to the Age 14. The rising star of Cambodia and all the minor Hollywood roles. The mellow family man at home on Long Island with the wife and kids, a tremendous midlife shift that found Gray, in a later piece, hauling a boombox on his shoulder as he boogied to Chumbawumba.

"I'm a poetic journalist," he tells an interviewer. "I like telling the story of life better than I do living it."

Heroically whipped into shape by Gray's Anatomy editor Susan Littenberg, Fine makes a rather zesty task out of structuring its subject's creatively minded chaos. Gray still seems much too alive for a hipster postmortem and in its final image—of toddler Spalding dancing in a circles in his Rhode Island backyard, as music by his son Forrest plays on the soundtrack—suggests nothing so much as the eternal return.

I Am Secretly An Important Man

Gray was ever flying the flannel, but his patrician Yankee accent was at least a coast away from the grating, aggressive, prison-lingo littered voice of Steven "Jesse" Bernstein. The Seattle poet, who took his own life in 1991, became something of a living legend in his brief 40 years, a subculture hero whose admirers included William S. Burroughs, Kurt Cobain and Oliver Stone. A more defiantly underground character would be hard to imagine, but the Seattle rock scene of the late 1980s turned out to be an ideal milieu for Bernstein, who was as much a genuine outcast as many of the grunge kids imagined themselves to be. He was a skinny, bow-legged dude with Coke bottle glasses and a piercing stare, prone to bipolar episodes and drug use, and generally unemployable.

I Am Secretly An Important Man I Am Secretly an Important Man, which opens December 15th at New York's IFC Center, is a perfect title for Pete Sillen's documentary about Bernstein. The writer and performer remains such a secret that the film plays out as a kind of mystery, with the director playing investigator. Sillen was lucky in that Bernstein was obsessed with constant video documentation of himself and was an incessant collaborator, leaving a huge trail of pixels and paper—not to mention a string of ex-wives, ex-lovers and two now-grown sons. Some of the footage is so grainy and degraded it looks marvelously like the video equivalent of a photocopied 'zine. But while the film's immersion in form as content conveys a potent sense of the Seattle aesthetic, Sillen also had to roam farther afield.

Tracing Bernstein's evolution from a bright but offbeat Los Angeles schoolboy to the grunge poet laurate with homemade tattoos covering both his hands, Sillen finds a subject who's a bit Zelig-like. Bernstein had more unusual experiences before he was 18 than most people do in a lifetime. He met jazz piano genius Phineas Newborn Jr. while confined to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. He hitched a ride on Ken Kesey's magic bus. He worked as an opening act for the Holy Modal Rounders, whom he abandoned when he feared they were trying to hold him captive. And so on. Sillen's previous films include a pair of intimate, thoughtful documentaries on idiosyncratic Southern performers (Benjamin Smoke, codirected with Jem Cohen, and Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt), efforts that thoughtfully take in the environment that shapes their subjects as much as the subjects themselves. Secretly is no different, attuned to informal, interstitial asides that don't seem necessary but enrich the viewing experience.

I Am Secretly An Important Man The film delivers only enough of Bernstein performing—an electrifying reading of his "hit single," Come Out Tonight, shutting down the hecklers as he opens for the noise band Big Black, audio excerpts from his Sub-Pop album Prison—to define his approach and arouse curiosity. Which is fine. Bernstein's actual life, lived on the edge but with a sometimes beatific sweetness about it, may have been the greater work of art. People approach Bernstein as if he was some sort of extraterrestrial, his older brother reflects, but "he was really Huckleberry Finn with a little extra chili pepper."

As a warm-up before the run of I Am Secretly an Important Man, Sillen will screen his short films, including the aforementioned Speed Racer, plus Grand Luncheonette and Branson: Musicland U.S.A. at 7pm on Dec. 14 at the IFC Center. He'll also show a brief working cut of his upcoming feature length documentary on the Masonic Order in America, Free and Accepted.

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Posted by ahillis at December 12, 2010 8:43 PM