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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Night At The Movies

Double Feature: The weight of water

By Dennis Hartley

Undercurrent of angst: And Everything is Going Fine

Everything is contingent, and there is also chaos.
-Spalding Gray

Who was it who once dismissed the art of the monologist as “comedy, without punch lines”? Oh, that’s right…it was me. OK, I will confess-when I used to work as a stand-up, I always felt a bit envious of my more long-winded show-biz cousins, because generally, they got to sit down (I’ve always been a lazy bastard). Not only that, but they got to sit behind a desk, upon which they were allowed to keep notes (in case they lost their place-which probably makes actors jealous, too). They could get away with using props-without being accused of “hiding behind them”, like stand-ups are. Also, why is it that when a stand-up comic performs a long-form piece with props, it’s a “one person-show”…never a “monologue”? Do you have to be “born” a monologist? But then, as years passed and I allegedly became older and wiser, I came to admire the monologists, because I realized what it was that separates them from stand ups. Stand-ups are insecure and desperate for acceptance. That’s why we’re willing to go out there “naked” with only a mike in front of a roomful of hostile drunks, perform the same 20 minute act night after night, collect $50, and dash for the exit, before the sense of shame and humiliation over what we do for a living fully sinks in (I believe it was Jay Leno who once quite accurately likened the life of a stand up to that of a cheap hooker). A monologist, on the other hand, has to have an admirable sense of confidence in themselves. Confident enough to believe that the minutiae of their lives is so fascinating, that people will pay good money to sit in rapt attention for 90 minutes while they prattle on about themselves.

Whether or not you are going to enjoy watching And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s new documentary about the life of the late Spalding Gray (king of all monologists) largely hinges on how open you are to paying good money to sit in rapt attention for 90 minutes while someone prattles on about themselves. That’s because Soderbergh is shrewd enough to let a man who was nothing if not a compulsive (and gifted) storyteller tell you his own story, in his own words. For Gray’s fans, Soderbergh’s film could be what the Beatles Anthology was to Fab Four aficionados-a masterfully edited and chronologically assembled compendium of clips from TV interviews and performance excerpts spanning the breadth of his career, spiced throughout by rare and previously unseen footage. What emerges is a portrait of the artist, narrated by the artist.

Like many moviegoers, my first awareness of Gray came from watching Swimming To Cambodia, Jonathan Demme’s wonderfully realized 1987 film version of Gray’s stage show, in which Gray was able to weave a mesmerizing and vastly entertaining monologue from his experiences working on the 1984 film,The Killing Fields. He had a relatively minor acting part in the film, but the stage piece it inspired is a veritable epic; it may start off like just another backstage tale, but as diffused through the prism of a great storyteller, somehow it eventually manages to touch on life, the universe and everything. The film was a surprise hit, and although he continued to take acting roles, he was always best at just “playing” Spalding Gray, particularly in subsequent film versions of three more stage shows, (the 1988 HBO presentation Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure, and two feature films-Monster in a Box from 1992 and Gray's Anatomy, released in 1996).

There is an elephant in the room that Soderbergh largely sidesteps, and that is Gray’s tragic end. In March of 2004, after a two-month disappearance, his body was recovered from the East River, off Greenpoint in Brooklyn. It was a presumed suicide, as Gray had been suffering from severe depression (and had made several attempts to take his own life) since a 2001 car accident that left him with a fractured skull and shattered hip. There is some footage of Gray recounting the accident, and hobbling around on crutches, but no further elaboration on what it eventually led to. Maybe the director does brush against the subject in his own indirect fashion; in one interview clip Gray jokes about how Soderbergh had talked him into taking a “perfect part” in his 1993 film King of the Hill-playing a depressive character who eventually kills himself. And there are several clips (from both interviews and stage shows) where Gray refers to his mother’s suicide; perhaps the most revealing quote comes when he says “I was darkly convinced that at age 52 I would kill myself because my mother committed suicide at that age. I was fantasizing that she was waiting for me on the other side of the grave.” We can never know who or what Gray thought might be waiting for him when he took that plunge into the watery depths, but if dead men really could tell tales, his would certainly be the best.

Drowning in a sea of love: Undertow

Just when you thought you’d had your fill of romantic ghost stories about closeted Peruvian fishermen, along comes writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon with his debut film Contracorriente (“Undertow”). And yes, I am being facetious. A cross between Making Love and Truly Madly Deeply, it is a unique, compassionate, beautifully moving tale; it is the most resonant Spanish language parable I’ve seen since Like Water for Chocolate.

The story is set on the Peruvian coast. We meet an amiable, locally popular young fisherman named Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and his lovely (and very pregnant) wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who live in a sleepy little village-the kind of place where everyone not only knows your name, but pretty much everything that you might be up to at any given time of the day or night. Which makes it a minor miracle that no one knows about Miguel’s amor secreto-an artist/photographer named Santiago (Manolo Cardona), an urban ex-pat who lives in an isolated beach shack, where he works on his paintings. Although he’s a low-key and gentle man, Santiago lives in literal and figurative isolation from the rest of the village; due to the fact that he is an openly gay agnostic. In a small town heavily imbued with the deeply conservative values of both traditional machismo culture and the Catholic Church, this would count for two fairly big strikes against him.

Because of his high standing with fellow fishermen and the village priest (and the fact that he is a father-to-be), Miguel is bound and determined to keep his languid, passionate trysts on the beach with Santiago compartmentalized. “I’m not that way,” he insists with a barely convincing air of macho indignation, when Santiago breaches the subject of total and open commitment (denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes). Mercado is a subtle actor; the look on his face as he stalks away from his lover after the spat conveys both the conflict in his heart and the inner turmoil he is suffering from due to his romantic confusion (because he does enjoy a loving relationship with his wife as well).

As the birth of his child becomes more imminent, Miguel really begins to get jumpy. After Santiago “accidently” runs into Mariela in the public market and offers to buy her a good luck candle for her baby after striking up a friendly conversation, Miguel angrily forbids him to make any more contact with his family. Santiago honors his request, and the lovers cool their heels for a while. Imagine Miguel’s surprise when, sometime after the birth of his new son, he is awakened by a noise in the middle of the night and discovers a distraught Santiago sitting on his kitchen floor. Naturally, he frantically attempts to shoo him out of his house without awakening his wife; it doesn’t work. Miguel then has an even bigger surprise when Mariela asks him who he is talking to, even though Santiago is sitting right between them in full view. “Your face is white,” his wife says with concern (as if he has seen a you-know-what). Santiago has accidently drowned while taking an ocean swim; and the only one who can “see” him now is Miguel. According to village tradition, the dead cannot truly “rest” unless they receive a public burial at sea. Santiago desperately wants Miguel to recover his body and perform this time-honored local ritual. Miguel’s new dilemma: Free Santiago’s soul (and come out of the closet in the process), or keep his secret and damn his lover to eternal torment.

The director and his cinematographer (Mauricio Vidal) utilize the inherent beauty of the tropical South American coastline to good effect (it’s interesting to note that Cabo Blanco, where the most of the principal photography was done, was also where some of the location footage for the 1958 version of The Old Man and the Sea was shot). The performances by the three leads are quite engaging. The film won the audience award at the 2010 Sundance Festival-not surprising considering the emotional wallop packed by the film’s denouement (I frankly didn’t expect the waterworks to kick in so intensely-I was blubbering like a baby, and it’s been a while since a film had that kind of effect on me). Even though it is a tale steeped in magical realism, it ultimately earns its points by shedding some light on one of life’s biggest mysteries-the complexity of the human heart.