Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

Florida Film Festival 2013


Florida Film Festival 2013

The Florida Film Festival will be returning from April 5 through April 14. As in years past, Cinema365 is proud to cover our local film festival and this year will be bigger and better than any year before, with 173 features and short films taking up screen time. Voted one of the 50 best film festivals in the world, it’s different than the industry shmoozefests that are Sundance, Tribeca and TIFF. Those are places where filmmakers go to make a deal. FFF is where they go to mingle with the audience. There is an intimate feel that is missing from some film festivals where there is so much going on that you’re exhausted from day one. There is a more leisurely pace here but even so by the 14th you may well be reaching your limit.

The guest of honor this year is legendary Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren who will be honored with a screening of her classic film The Birds. She’ll be on hand to answer qustions, some of which hopefully will be about her new film Free Samples which will also be playing at the festival. These events always sell out so you won’t want to wait too long before getting your ticket. Also attending the festival will be renowned stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell who will be on hand for a screening of Deathproof, the Quentin Tarantino-directed half of Grindhouse.  She’s done some of the most amazing stunts of the past decade so you won’t want to miss that either. Finally for those of a more romantic bent, the Festival will have Sunday brunch on the 14th with a screening of one of my all-time favorites The Princess Bride with star Cary Elwes in attendence. This promises to be an unforgettable event and, like the other celebrity appearances, is likely to sell out early.

But a film festival is all about, well, films and as usual there are a plethora of exciting entries at this year’s festival. While I’m not going to preview them all here, I will give you some films that I think are worth looking out for. The opening night slot is always a big deal at any film festival and the FFF is no different. This year the honor goes to Twenty Feet from Stardom, an acclaimed documentary that drew raves at Sundance earlier this year. For those who love classic rock and roll, the film focuses on the backup singers who share the stage and recording studio with some of the biggest stars and on the biggest hits of all time. It’s an amazing get up and dance kind of movie that is bound to have opening nighters boogaloo-ing in the aisles. Opening night is another event that sells out early so you’ll want to order your ticets as soon as you can.

Unfinished Song stars Terrence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in a film that reminds me a little bit of Young @ Heart, about a grumpy senior whose life is transformed by singing in a chorus. Lore takes place at the end of World War II in occupied Germany when a group of children whose parents were arrested as Nazis try to make their way across the country to their grandmother’s. Renoir is the story of the love triangle between the great Impressionist, his son and his model slash muse. It looks achingly beautiful. Mud stars Matthew McConaughey , Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard in a thriller about a couple of kids who befriend a man on the run from the law, who is haunted by the woman who may have inspired him to do wrong.

V/H/S 2 is the sequel to the hit indie horror anthology and should be packing them in at midnight showings. So too should Cockneys vs. Zombies, a East End-set zombie flick that looks to be a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead with a wicked sense of humor that had preview audiences laughing til they screamed. Starbuck is a French-Canadian film about a man who is ready to be a father of his girlfriend’s child although she is none too certain about his paternal skills. Matters aren’t helped when it is discovered that as a repeated sperm donor back in the day he had wound up fathering over 500 children. I’m sure his tie collection will be legendary.

SOMM is a food documentary chronicling the difficult process of becoming certified as a master sommelier. In the music realm Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and AKA Doc Pomus look back at legendary figures in classic rock and roll while Bad Brains: A Band in DC looks at one of the most influential punk bands of all time.

The narrative competition films have some real promising entries this year, with The Forgotten Kingdom following a young man’s journey to reconnect with his family in Leostho, Putzel which is a different kind of romantic comedy (I know a lot of rom-coms claim that but this one really looks like the real deal), The History of Future Folk which has the daft premise of an alien invasion which goes awry when the aliens decide to become folksingers, All the Light in the Sky in the meantime follows an aging actress who is watching her indie career dwindle as younger actresses nab the roles that once went to her. Nancy, Please is a terrifying thriller about the roommate from Hell who goes to extreme lengths to reclaim the book she left behind and Be Good which observes new parents adopting to their changing roles.

The documentary competition is equally impressive with Year of the Living Dead which looks back on the lasting impact of George A. Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead while Magical Universe explores the bizaare world of artist Al Carbee’s Barbie-centric art. Shepard and Dark explores the unique and moving friendship (mostly expressed through correspondence) between actor/playwright Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark who was at one time married to the mother of Shepard’s wife. Informant traces the path of Brandon Darby from respected activist to FBI informant while Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story traces the career of revolutionary children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Films like 8 1/2, Sleeper, The Sting and Pulp Fiction will also be screened as well as a plethora of foreign films, short films, documentaries, narrative features, family films and animated shorts. Individual tickets will go on sale on March 17th (this Sunday) although you can still buy passes and packages of five, ten and twenty vouchers which can be redeemed for individual films right now. For more details on the festival, ticket purchase information and directions to the festival venues, click on the logo above which will take you right to the Festival website. That same logo will appear on all festival film reviews even after the festival is over.

It should be noted that nearly every year since I started attending this event my number one movie on the year-end countdown has played at the Festival. Some of the films that have played here have gone on to commercial success (The Blair Witch Project) or Oscar nominations (Winter’s Bone). While there are no guarantees, I can tell you that this is one of the best-curated festivals that I’m aware of and the overall quality of the films that play it are nothing short of spectacular.

Enzian president Henry Maldonado liked the Festival to a gathering of friends, not unlike a reunion and he’s right. The atmosphere at the Festival is like none other I’ve experienced. Part of that is due to the bucolic scenery at the Enzian itself (although the atmosphere at the neighboring Regal multiplex in Winter Park Village where many of the screenings take place is no less idyllic) but most of the credit goes to the staff, volunteers and the attendees themselves. This is the kind of thing that loses something in the translation but once experienced for yourself will hook you for life. Even if I were to move out of the Orlando area, I’d come back every year for the FFF. I hope I’ll see some of my Orlando-area readers at the Festival; those who can travel to come see it should make the effort to do so. This is no theme park but if you’re a movie buff, this is so much better.