The persistent themes and trademark preoccupations of Sam Shepard’s art, wounded or damaged masculinity, the legacy of violence and haunted, absent fathers, is given an alternate, fascinating point of view in Treva Wurmfeld’s documentary Shepard and Dark.
The greatest playwright of his generation is seen from alternate angles, intimate, head on, flinty and not always flattering, as captured through his nearly fifty-year friendship (and sometimes contentious rivalry) with Johnny Dark. At first glance, there appears to be little that links the two. The film is about going deeper inside character and personality and finding how people connect. “You don’t need to be the same, you just need to find a way to connect,” Dark asserts at the start.
The movie, like a Shepard play, True West, especially, moves emphatically through time and space, dancing backward and forward, in charting the flow and shape of the friendship between the two. To her credit, Wurmfeld never privileges Shepard’s perspective over than of Dark. This powerfully recessive actor, who never appeared to be very comfortable talking about his art or the corresponding attention, opens up and out, offering a prickly, wounded and at times achingly vulnerable subject.
By contrast, Dark is the more animated and natural “character,” a literary gadfly, who like Woody Allen’s Zelig, had a profound and natural way of finding himself caught in the middle of very fertile artistic movements, like the explosion of the off Off-Broadway theater scene five decades ago. It was in Greenwich Village, in 1963, Dark chanced upon Shepard the day after seeing a play of his. The two struck up a conversation, and it radiated out from there.
Dark and Shepard are both outlaw, even radical, traditionalists. Shepard, who once explained in an interview his morbid fear of losing his entire play from working with a computer, is shown hammering out his current play on a manual typewriter. Dark is a kindred spirit, drawn to solitude and simple pleasures, caring for his books, taking a bath or smoking a joint.
Dark is also an obsessive archivist. The organizing shape of the documentary revolves around a book derived from their epic correspondence, part of Shepard’s deal of making his literary estate available to a university in Texas. Wurmfeld colors and deepens the material, providing context and point of view, through reams of private and personal material, home movies shot on Super-8, a trove of photographs, supplemented by other archival material, like an extract of a very young Shepard appearing with some other playwrights to talk about the craft on a New York talk show.
Their lives intersect in more primal ways, as well. Shepard’s first wife, O-lan Jones, is the daughter of Dark’s wife. Both men are also emotionally scarred by their bruising, difficult relationships to their fathers (Shepard’s, in particular, was a complex, furious man, a former combat bomber pilot and Fulbright scholar who was undone by his nasty and persistent alcoholism).
Shepard notoriously, by his own admission, abandoned his family, his wife and teenaged son, to take up with Jessica Lange, and Dark became a surrogate father to the young boy. (At the time the film was shot, the relationship with Lange, which also produced several children, is now over.)
The incongruent nature of (and financial means) of the two men bring about a not surprising rupture. The ambiguity is something worth considering. The movie’s organizing shape pivots on movement, with many of the interviews unfolding in cars or tracks that traverse the open spaces of the American West or the vast stretches of the Texas panhandle. Both men are attempting, not always successfully, to outrun their own demons.
This is a first documentary feature by the gifted Wurmfeld (pictured above, at left). Perhaps it took a woman to capture something essential and pure the loneliness of the American man. It’s a portrait, to be sure, but like the best of Shepard’s plays, it animates in subtle ways something dark and ferocious about loss and separation. Shepard has lost some of his cultural standing in the last couple of decades.
The movie’s ending, tense and sad, evokes Cassio’s notorious lament to Iago: “Reputation, reputation, reputation. Oh, I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”Images courtesy of Music Box Films.