February appears to be Artist Suicide Month at the Gene Siskel Film Center. C. Scott Willis’s documentary The Woodmans, which screens daily through February 17, profiles Francesca Woodman, the gifted young New York photographer who leaped from a window to her death in 1981. Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine, opening at the Film Center on Friday, uses performance and interview clips to create an autobiography of Spalding Gray, the actor and monologuist who was fished out of the East River in 2004 after he presumably jumped from the Staten Island Ferry. And Kenneth Bowser’s documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, which begins a weeklong run next Friday, February 25, tells the story of the 60s protest singer who hanged himself in 1976. Thank God there are only 28 days this month; I shudder to think what the Film Center might have planned for Leap Year.
I haven’t seen the Francesca Woodman movie (which Albert Williams praised in these pages last week). But the Phil Ochs and the Spalding Gray movies make for an interesting pair, and not only because of how the men died. The similarities between them are arresting. Both Ochs and Gray were driven performers who wrestled with the parameters of their art. Both were essentially writers, using words to articulate their questions and beliefs. Both were manic depressive, and both suffered serious physical injuries that sent them spiraling into prolonged emotional crises they couldn’t escape. At the same time, their work often contrasts powerfully: Gray focused on the minutiae of his own private experience, peering ever more inward, while Ochs was actively engaged in public life, turning his art into a political act. In the end both men are less interesting for having destroyed themselves than for having created themselves so vividly while they were alive.
As Bowser establishes in There But for Fortune, Ochs rooted around the popular culture for the materials he would use to fashion his persona. Growing up in El Paso, Texas, he worshipped John Wayne and Gary Cooper, and his first musical heroes were outlaws like Elvis Presley and Hank Williams. He pursued a journalism degree at Ohio State University, but after a friend introduced him to records by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, he dropped out of college and moved to New York to become a folksinger. In the Greenwich Village of the early 60s, Ochs distilled all these influences into a personal mythology that combined reporting, proletarian politics, and the cowboy valor of the Old West. Politically he was a true believer, passing up paid gigs to play at demonstrations, and he seldom turned down an invitation to stump for a cause. Long after Bob Dylan, his friend and musical rival, had abandoned the protest song for cryptic stream-of-consciousness lyrics, Ochs clung stubbornly to the folk tradition of chronicling the times (his first album was titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing).
Amid the decade’s feverish musical reinvention, even Ochs felt the need to move on eventually, experimenting with chamber pop and rock ‘n’ roll revivalism. But in the documentary these stylistic thrashings seem like sideshows to the great drama of the antiwar and civil rights movements, which consumed Ochs body and soul. According to his wife, Alice, he was so broken up by the JFK assassination that he didn’t want to attend his own father’s funeral. He was powerfully affected by the war in Vietnam and the violence at home. “It just seemed like one hammer blow after another,” recalls his friend Lucian Truscott IV, “and I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally.” Ochs performed for protesters in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic convention and was bitterly disillusioned by the police riot on Michigan Avenue. Even his musical adventures were driven by his political journey: his 1970 incarnation as a 50s rock ‘n’ roll star, complete with gold lamé suit, was primarily a reaction to Richard Nixon’s success in winning over middle America.
There But for Fortune ultimately portrays Ochs as a man broken by the death of 60s utopianism, though I couldn’t be sure whether that was really the truth or just a good rationale for breaking out the usual iconic photographs and talking heads (Tom Hayden, Paul Krassner, Peter Yarrow, Joan Baez). There’s no question that the Democratic convention sent Ochs spinning out of control in the late 60s, even as the counterculture shifted from nonviolence to revolutionary rage. He drank heavily and caroused in third-world hot spots; in 1973 he was robbed and strangled during a visit to Tanzania, sustaining serious damage to his vocal cords. His last big triumph was a May 1974 concert he organized at Madison Square Garden to aid Chilean refugees and expose the CIA-backed coup against Salvador Allende; one gets the sense that only a great cause could pull him out of his gathering vortex of alcoholism and depression. Commenting in the documentary, folksinger Judy Henske blames Ochs’s mental collapse on his growing self-absorption: “He stopped looking outward.”
By contrast, Spalding Gray never functioned so well artistically as when he looked within. His monologues—which he began performing in New York theaters in the late 1970s and continued to craft nearly until his death—were careful examinations of his own personal experience, each story cuing a raft of insights and associations. By 1985 he’d become so skilled in the form that his monologue Swimming to Cambodia, about his experience acting in the movie The Killing Fields, caused a stir at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and was made into a movie itself by Jonathan Demme. The Cambodia movie was Gray’s biggest artistic and commercial success, followed by Monster in a Box (1992) and Gray’s Anatomy (1996). Aside from Richard Pryor, no American monologuist had better luck translating his work to the screen, and though Gray continued to take acting gigs through the 80s and 90s, his best role would become himself. In Soderbergh’s documentary, Gray admits to one interviewer that “the self became a persona” and tells another that he’d needed a therapist’s help to draw the line between public and private.
Soderbergh worked with Gray in the 90s, casting him in King of the Hill (1993) and then directing Gray’s Anatomy, and to a great extent And Everything Is Going Fine feels like a third collaboration between the men. Soderbergh has rounded up video footage of Gray performing his many one-man shows (two were shot at the Goodman Theatre), as well as TV interview segments (The Charlie Rose Show, Entertainment Tonight) and informal videocam footage. Because the clips have been edited together in strict chronological order, there are often disconcerting leaps in time, with early clips of a trim and confident Spalding Gray onstage juxtaposed with scenes of him old, unkempt, and brain-damaged following a horrific 2001 car crash. Yet the narrative is seamless, the polished stage performances blending beautifully with the similarly poised and articulate interview clips. In one TV interview Gray describes himself as “an inverted Method actor, using myself to play myself,” which is essentially what Soderbergh has done in the editing room.
Like Bowser, Soderbergh feels compelled to offer a theory on his subject’s demise, and he repeatedly points the viewer back to Gray’s mother, Margaret Horton. A Christian Scientist, she suffered serial nervous breakdowns and, according to one monologue, once blurted out to her son, “How shall I do it, dear? How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage, with the car?” After she committed suicide in 1967, Gray scandalized his relatives by using the experience as material for a group theater piece, and he was clearly haunted by her death to the end. He feared he would kill himself when he turned 52, the age at which she died, and entertained suicidal fantasies. As it happened, he lived ten years longer than she did. Neurologist Oliver Sacks has revealed that Gray spoke to him about the idea of “creative suicide,” a term that suggests he was still having trouble separating his life from the autobiography he continually fashioned on stage and screen. Gray never uses that term in the movie, but at one point he does furnish himself with the perfect epitaph: “I enjoy telling the story of life more than I enjoy living it.”