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