And Everything Is Going Fine
After the death in 2004 of American theater actor and monologist Spalding Gray, director Steven Soderbergh pieced together a narrative of Gray’s life to create the documentary And Everything Is Going Fine. Brilliantly and sensitively assembled entirely from footage of Gray, taken from interviews and one-man shows from throughout his career, it is a rich, full portrait—an autobiography of sorts—of a figure who was never less than candid but retained an air of mystery.
Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
This is a hard transfer to judge just because of how the film was put together and where everything has been sourced from. Director Steven Soderbergh put this documentary together, effectively a film about the life of Spalding Gray, using existing footage of interviews and monologues, no new material being shot for the film. Unfortunately a good majority of the footage used comes from poor quality sources, 90% of it coming from video sources I would say, 9% of it is standard-definition digital footage, and the last 1% could possibly be film. Obviously, even on Blu-ray in high-definition, this footage is going to be limited by the source material: Even on Blu-ray VHS is still only going to look as good as VHS allows, which isn’t very good.
Soderbergh comments in the features about how he likes the look of the film, with its varying quality in footage, and I do have to agree with him; stylistically the film has an interesting look. But from a technical perspective, concentrating on what Blu-ray can offer, the image still doesn’t look very good, even though it’s the best it could possibly look. It really does, in the end, look like you’re watching a film on VHS, and there’s nothing much that can be done about it. The image can look fuzzy, colours can look oversaturated or faded despite some obvious colour correction, contrast is a mess, artifacts are rampant with plenty of ghosting, jagged edges, and obvious interlacing, and there’s a lot of noise because of the limitations of video tape. Some of the older footage is also pixilated, heavily so, almost like a camera was filming a television, though I think the culprit is just a lower quality video recording.
Footage shot in standard-definition does look a bit better, but again at best it looks as good as the source allows: here it just looks like a decent standard definition presentation. Detail is again lacking, quick movements present ghosting and the interlaced source presents shimmering and jaggies. But colours at least look better than what the video tape sources offer and the image is definitely quite a bit sharper.
There are many shots of photos of Gray throughout, which may have been filmed with better quality equipment but I wouldn’t be surprised if this material was also shot in SD digital since these moments still present some obvious shimmering effects.
It’s unfair badgering the image quality since the film is what it is: a loving montage made up of footage (most of it video) shot of Gray over the years and put together to allow the actor/writer to give one last final monologue of his life posthumously. Criterion and crew have done what they can and have delivered as good a digital transfer as they can, even managing to transfer the 29.97 frame rate cleanly to 24fps, which in and of itself is probably the most important aspect of the transfer. Yet from a technical perspective the film doesn’t make much sense on Blu-ray. I’m one of those people that believes most anything can look better on Blu-ray, like an 80-year-old film riddled with damage, simply because the higher resolution will still present a sharper, truer image. Yes, maybe in that case DVD may be good enough for some but I still believe the Blu-ray will always look, at the very least, cleaner and more film-like. The issue here is that most everything we are given is NTSC 480i video footage—at best—blown up to 1080p, and not film being downscaled. Despite the higher resolution in the end it’s never going to look better than 480i footage. I haven’t seen it yet admittedly but this may be a case where the DVD is actually good enough since the Blu-ray is effectively an upscaled presentation of video footage. I think at best (again I have yet to see the DVD) the Blu-ray will probably just present slightly less obvious compression noise, but otherwise the differences may more than likely be negligible.
My intention is not to badmouth Criterion here. They’ve done all they can and have done a great job with what they had to work with. Just the adjustment of frame rates and still delivering a seamless presentation in this regard is impressive. It’s now obvious they’re devoted to Blu-ray after seeming less so in their early days of adopting the format, and for this I’m happy, but in the end a Blu-ray release for this film may be a little bit of overkill and some may want to consider the cheaper DVD instead.
UPDATE (6/22/2012): I've viewed the DVD version of the film and, as expected, the transfer between the Blu-ray and the DVD are similar. I suspected the DVD to be noisier in some areas but this was surprisingly not a concern. I'd say they, at the very least, look identical.
The film gets a lossless 1.0 PCM mono presentation. Again, might be overkill since all of the audio has been recorded on video tape or lossy digital but forgetting those limitations the audio is at least clear (which Soderbergh mentions was his biggest concern in the interview found in the supplements.) Though it’s all flat and about as lifeless as can be, with maybe the digital footage sounding a bit sharper, you can make out Spalding Gray’s dialogue clearly and I never ran into an instance where subtitles were required. This isn’t a flashy film at all and was never intended to be. The most important aspect of it is whether you can hear the dialogue and yes, you can.
This isn’t a loaded special edition but in the end I do have to admit I found it to be, for lack of a better word, “complete.”
Making And Everything is Going Fine is a 21-minute collection of interviews with director Steven Soderbergh, producer Kathleen Russo, and editor Susan Littenberg. It turns out to be a great little piece about the making of the film, along with more personal reflections from the participants about Gray. Russo was married to Gray and talks a little about the final couple of years of his life after a life changing accident in Ireland that resulted in brain damage for the actor/writer. She says he seemed different but was still working hard, trying to come up with material for this recent event in his life, and, most importantly, seemed happy. It wasn’t until after 9/11 where he obviously fell into a deep depression and never recovered from it. Soderbergh also talks about the Gray he knew and his regret over disappearing from his life after the accident. Everyone then gets into details about how this film came together. Russo approached Soderbergh who agreed to do it (though he admits it was probably out of guilt for dropping from his life) and Soderbergh talks about the planning behind the film. He admits he considered doing a more conventional documentary, maybe something along the lines of what Errol Morris would do, mixing in interviews, new footage, possible reenactments, along with archival footage of Gray, but that he then decided the film would be done with Gray’s own voice. It was here that Soderbergh decided to just make the film up of recorded footage of the man. The task then fell upon Littenberg to go through over 90-hours’ worth of footage and construct something from that. It was while the footage was whittled down where it came to be that the film would be Gray, through his monologues and interviews, talking about his life one final time. Despite this feature being another simple talking-heads piece it’s an incredibly fascinating recount of the man and this project, definitely worth viewing after seeing the film.
Criterion next includes video footage shot in 1982 of one of Spalding Gray’s performances of his first monologue, Sex and Death to Age 14. If And Everything is Going Fine is supposed to be Gray’s final word it only seems fitting that the Blu-ray presents Gray’s first monologue, what started it all. The performance apparently changed over time, Gray recording his performances, watching them later, and tweaking them where he saw fit, but as I understand it the final possible version of the monologue is still similar to what we get here. The 64-minute piece, appearing in poor video quality, presents Gray, sitting at his desk with a glass of water of course, talking in the stream-of-conscious way he does about his early life and the subject of sex and death, as he understood it then. It’s a very funny and, as always, surprisingly energetic piece. It’s a great, very thoughtful inclusion on Criterion’s part. A lot of footage from this was also used in And Everything is Going Fine.
The disc unfortunately pretty much ends there, though, concluding with a theatrical trailer for the film and then a booklet that presents a nice if not overly thorough essay by Nell Casey. But it also presents a photo of what I assume is one of Gray’s notebooks and then various photos of the man.
The Blu-ray does have one advantage over the DVD, though: the Timeline feature which is on all Criterion Blu-rays, allowing you to quickly skip through chapters as well as save and retrieve your favourite spots in the film. Also, all of the features here are presented in 1080p, though the monologue is obviously upscaled from a video source.
Since there was apparently 90-hours of material of Gray to sift through there was obviously more footage for Criterion to add, especially more interview footage, but I suspect it was chosen not to include this, allowing the film to say what it has to say about Gray, his work, and his life, and leave it at that. At most we get a decent recount on the making of the film and Gray’s first monologue, and with the main feature this release nicely rounds out the man, and in the end it feels “complete”.
Criterion has put together a nice edition for the film. The supplements are not plentiful but I felt satisfied with what we get. But despite the fact I’m happy Criterion will obviously put anything out on Blu-ray (and I want to stress I am very happy for this,) their Blu-ray release for And Everything is Going Fine could still be one of those rare releases where I feel the DVD will be just fine for most. At best the presentation delivers an above-average VHS look, or above-average standard-definition digital look. Not once does it really look high-def or even come close to testing the limits of the Blu-ray format. It is, ultimately, a limitation of the film, nothing that Criterion has done, and they’ve still delivered the best possible image for the film. But in the end I wouldn’t be surprised if the advantages over the DVD are minimal at best.