Saturday night brought a break from Sundance, and a long trudge in the post-snow storm sludge up to the top of Park City's Main Street, for the world premiere of Steven Soderbergh's Spalding Gray doc, And Everything is Going Fine, at the Slamdance Film Festival. Getting there requires carving a swath through the living hell that is Main Street on the first weekend of Sundance (where do all these kids come from, and why don't the girl ones know better than to wear miniskirts and spike heels when it's 19 degrees?), but once you make it to the Treasure Mountain Inn, the difference between the two local festivals quickly becomes clear
Launched in 1995 by four filmmakers whose movies were rejected by Sundance, Slamdance has since hosted the world premieres of The King of Kong and Paranormal Activity, screened the early work of future auteurs Christopher Nolan and Jared Hess, and has generally blossomed into an institution of its own. While big man on campus Sundance mounts a major campaign touting its return to its roots, Slamdance hasn't drifted far enough from its original lo-fi trappings to necessitate a return. The red carpet scraps lining the aisle of the makeshift Slamdance theater are dingy, the screenings are small and casual and though there are corporate sponsors, when a pre-film bumper flashes their logos the festival organizers themselves shout out snarky heckles. Welcome to an upstart alternative set in its ways.
One of Slamdance's earliest supporters was Steven Soderbergh, whose own career was made by the frenzy surrounding sex, lies and videotape at the 1989 edition of Sundance. After Slamdance's first installment, co-founder Dan Mirvish was nervous to run into Soderbergh at the SXSW festival in Austin.
"At that point, Steven was like Mr. Sundance, and I was very afraid he'd be upset with what we were doing," Mirvish told the assembled crowd tonight. "But he said, 'No, I love you guys!'"
The next year, Soderbergh submitted a film that he produced to Sundance, and when it was rejected, he famously took that film "across the street" to Slamdance. That film was The Daytrippers, and it won the 1996 Slamdance Grand Jury Prize and went on to Cannes, where it scored distribution. Its director, Greg Mottola, went on to direct Superbad and Adventureland. Soderbergh went on to premiere his experimental personal project Schizopolis at Slamdance in 1997. A dozen years later, he sent the festival "a one line email," asking if they would world premiere Fine, his first documentary.
Actor/author/monologuist Gray died in 2004, in an apparent suicide after a lifelong history of depression and an excruciatingly difficult recovery from a serious car accident three years earlier. Soderbergh had directed Gray's Anatomy, the 1997 film based on Gray's monologue. According to Gray's widow Kathy Russo, who produced Fine, after her husband's death Soderbergh "called out of the blue and said, 'If there's a movie to be made about Spalding, I want to do it." Soderbergh's Gray's editor Susan Littenberg then spent three years carving a 90-minute feature out of 120 hours of footage from Gray's archive. No new footage was shot, and there are no intertitles or narration. Using only footage of Gray speaking, either on stage or off, Littenberg and Soderbergh craft a more or less chronological recreation of the performer's life history.
Soderbergh, who answered questions after the screening via Skype from Dublin, said his goal was to memorialize Gray by creating "a new monologue [with] Spalding telling his own story." It's amazing how well this works, and not a little eerie. Littenberg's spot-on construction creates an uncanny replica of a Gray monologue's pace and cadence, but also, Gray seems to have been imagining his death his entire life. In the opening image of the film, from a performance document obviously transferred from an obsolete tape medium, Gray enters the frame ghosted by rainbow video artifacts. Later, he tells an interviewer, "I like telling the story of life better than living it." As more and more of the past seems to point directly to Gray's untimely demise, Fine certainly does takes on the quality of "a new monologue" - a new monologue from beyond the grave.
Inevitably, the Q & A came to a close with a question about the film's future. "Uh...we don't have a deal yet," Soderbergh answered. "That's why you're at Slamdance," said Mirvish.