What: Film Review
Directed by: Treva Wurmfeld
Produced by: Amy Hobby
Edited by: Sandra Adair
Featuring: Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark
Running Time (in min.): 92 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Wake up early to take the dogs for a walk. Have a cup-o-joe before heading to work at the nearby Deming, New Mexico supermarket deli. Come home, get a Dylan record spinning, and sit in your favorite chair. Light up your hash pipe, and start typing a note to your best friend, Sam Shepard. Just another day in the life.
Or at least it would be if you were Johnny Dark, the most charming of two subjects in Treva Wurmfeld’s tender documentary, Shepard & Dark. Wurmfeld, in her feature-length debut, introduces us to a man unknown to the world and content to be so. His only requirements, it seems, are to be close to his loyal dogs and to send letters to Shepard, whom he met in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The two men lived together once upon a time – Dark was married to Scarlett Johnson, the love of his life, and Shepard married O-lan, Scarlett’s daughter and the mother of Sam’s son, Jesse – but that’s all in the past. In the present, the two best friends are working together on a project: selling, to the Texas State University archives, their forty-some-odd years of epistolary correspondence, kept in perpetual protection by the wizened Dark.
Wurmfeld also presents a novel version of Sam Shepard, here playing a quiet and handsome older gentleman who typewrites goofy letters from a Los Angeles Holiday Inn. This Shepard, seen sometimes wrangling horses and wearing cowboy hats, also sips tea from oversize mugs and wears Under Armor to meetings with his pal. As one myth shatters, another forms in front of us. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same person who won a Pulitzer, was nominated for an Academy Award, and spent elaborate measures of time with Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. It’s even more challenging to imagine him married, but he wearily (and briefly) reminisces about O-lan and, in less verbal ways, about the recent end of his relationship to the actress Jessica Lange.
As we hear from Dark, the pitter-patter of their relationship seems second-nature; and like anything so inherent between people, it’s easily taken for granted. At the heart of the film is Wurmfeld’s and editor Sandra Adair’s (also serving as Associate Producer) search for the fissures lining the great wall that is the Shepard-Dark friendship. In that quest, they are perhaps too successful – and the film becomes a testament not only to a long-lasting relationship, but to the elements that cause it harm. Strikingly, if perhaps subconsciously, Shepard at one point sings Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” with a rapscallion’s attitude. Suddenly, unwillingly, we notice the torrential downpour eroding these men.
What director (and first cameraperson) Wurmfeld manages to find in her footage of Sam Shepard is perhaps the film’s most elaborate wonder. In some ways, Shepard & Dark is a mythological text on the man, presenting a complicated, hopeless individual. While it’s true that he’s one of the world’s most acclaimed artists, he’s also a closet neurotic, walking away from commitments and homes just because it suits his flighty attitude. The internal and exterior self-sabotage he wreaks on the wizened, good-hearted Dark (who, we cringe when we see, nearly cries just thinking about his lonesome dogs) appears nearly unforgivable. Similarly, that Dark should have treasured their relationship enough to meticulously document it is inconceivable and yet somehow factual. In these contradictions – and here, Adair’s precise, patient editing is essential – they seem like nothing so much as birds of a feather. Like all the greatest buddy stories, it’s not their similarities that unite them, but their flaws.
Shepard & Dark has since gone on to major festivals, including a spot at Cannes in 2013, and is traveling the country thanks to the distribution help of indie outlet Music Box Films. This must be attributed to the flattering nature of what comes down to a uniquely spun (in that it’s dualistic) authorized biography: who the hell is Johnny Dark and how does he know Sam Shepard? How do they feel about the world, together? I say flattering because, as the general public, we cannot help but want more and more to get inside the lives of our celebrities. We want to know what makes them tick and, especially if they’re still working as constantly as Shepard (with significant roles last year in Jeff Nichols’s Mud and Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly), what they’re doing right now. It’s to Wurmfeld’s, Adair’s, and producer Amy Hobby’s credits that they flatter us rotten with just a small glance into the lives of an old icon and his best friend. But why do we feel so damn sad?