Two documentaries arrive in New York this week commemorating two very different figures from the 1960s counter-culture, broadly speaking. Steven Soderbergh’s “And Everything is Going Fine” features the late Spalding Gray about whom I have written in the past. The other movie is “Saint Misbehavin’: the Wavy Gray Movie”, a less successful film about a less interesting figure, at least to me.
Since Soderbergh directed “Gray’s Anatomy” in 1996, he clearly has an affinity for his work. Although the new film is achingly funny, drawn from numerous stage performances and interviews off-stage recorded at the story-teller’s home before his death by suicide, it is suffused with the melancholy of Schubert’s Winterreise, amounting to a kind of momento mori.
Gray recounts life growing up in Rhode Island with a Christian Scientist mother who would suffer numerous nervous breakdowns until finally killing herself. He slept in the same bedroom as a brother who would ask their mother the same questions nearly every night. “When we die, is it forever?” “Yes, dear, forever.”
For those who are curious about how Spalding Gray’s particular art form got its start, the film fills in the details. Gray first got the idea for talking about his experiences at a workshop at the Wooster Group in 1969 but it took a full decade for him to make his debut in something called “Sex and Death to the Age of Fourteen”. This was just around the time I had resigned from the SWP and moved back to New York where I began a relationship with an aspiring director named Alicia.
Trying to share experiences with her, we made a habit of going to the theater on a fairly regular basis including this performance by Spalding Gray. I also tried to get Alicia to develop an appreciation for Mike Feder, a deeply neurotic guy about my age whose mother had also committed suicide like Spalding’s. His stock in trade was anecdotes about growing up in a dysfunctional household similar in many respects to Spalding Gray’s. Alicia’s reaction to him at first was to demand that I switch to another station because she found him too “whiny”.
Later on, she became a fan as well. (Feder is much more of an acquired taste than Spalding Gray.) About two months after we split up, Alicia had joined Gray and Feder as an aspiring performance artist, a taste for whom it was 10 times greater than Feder’s to acquire. When I was up visiting my mother one weekend, I switched on the radio to listen to Feder and was surprised to discover that he had a special guest, one Alicia Quintano. Her story was all about living with a commie who had expensive tastes, owning a high-end stereo that the Cubans would consider anathema. A week or so after I heard this story, I contacted her and persuaded her to tell stories about other people. I can be very persuasive…
Yes, I know. I am meandering. Getting back to Spalding Gray, the movie includes some truly poignant footage of the artist after he had returned from Ireland as the victim of a terrible auto accident that would leave him in such physical and psychological pain that he was compelled to end his life by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. I can only say that despite being painful to watch, they are essential for understanding the coda to his career.
The movie was produced by Kathy Russo, Gray’s widow and functions as a kind of memorial meeting for those who admired one of the great American cultural innovators of the past 40 years. It opens at the IFC Center on Friday and includes appearances by Laurie Anderson and Andre Gregory, two other groundbreaking performance artists, at 6:25 on Saturday night. Highly recommended.
Although I had doubts whether Wavy Gravy would turn out to be an interesting figure, I decided that he was important enough for me to consider. Since D.A. Pennebaker was an executive producer, the assumption was that the film had a pretty good pedigree. Unfortunately, Mr. Gravy began to get on my nerves long before the movie ended. Another case of acquired tastes, I suppose.
Like Gray, Feder, and my ex-girlfriend, Hugh Romney started out as a kind of performance artist in the early 60s “talking about weird stuff that happened to me” at places like the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. It was there that he met Bob Dylan and became part of the nascent post-beat folk music and poetry scene.
In 1965 he moved out to Los Angeles and got connected with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, eventually founding a commune called the Hog Farm. As was the case with Kesey’s bus, Romney and his pals traveled around the country in the same manner “making the scene” at concerts and “be-ins”. At one concert, he was introduced to B.B. King who gave him the name “Wavy Gravy”.
Wavy Gravy’s pinnacle of fame arrived with the Woodstock concert in 1969 when the Hog Farm was hired to provide security. Unlike the notorious Altamont concert of the Rolling Stones, where the Hell’s Angels carried out a similar job—miserably, Woodstock was still early enough in the history of the counter-culture to not require much force.
After Woodstock, the Hog Farm went on a long spiritual trek (I think that is what they called these things) and got high and hung out with the locals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In just one of a number of failings in this earnest but plodding documentary, there is no attempt to contrast those woozy and peaceful days with today’s realities.
The biggest problem with the movie, and perhaps with Mr. Gravy himself, is that despite his claim to be a kind of holy clown, the man is not very funny. Except for walking around in clown suits and wearing greasepaint and rubber noses, he really doesn’t say or do anything very funny. An Abby Hoffman he is not. Or maybe he is and the director failed to capture him in such moments.
But perhaps my problem is that I don’t care for hippies very much, not when I was young or today. As a relic of a long-ago past, Mr. Wavy can be credited for sticking to his guns, I suppose. Those with less hostility to the incense-burning, Buddha-worshipping, navel-gazing crowd might enjoy the film a lot more than me. I imagine that if anybody ever made a documentary about me, it would present the same problems. After all, who wants to spend 87 minutes in the company of an unrepentant Marxist, except for other incorrigibles?
“Saint Misbehavin’: the Wavy Gravy Movie” opened today at the IFC Theater in New York, cheek by jowl with “And Everything is Going Fine”.