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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012 DOC NYC - Treva Wurmfeld's Shepard & Dark

A friendship in letters, Treva Wurmfeld’s Shepard & Dark is an insightful documentary about the relationship between playwright/actor Sam Shepard and photographer/writer Johnny Dark, and their project publishing a book of their letters of correspondence over nearly fifty years, since they met in Greenwich Village.  Their relationship is complicated, as Sam Shepard’s ego and self-identity as a lone cowboy overshadows Dark’s homebody sensibility and penchant for quiet ways of life. Most likely, one leaves the film inspired by Dark’s passion for living a solitary and peaceful life, while being turned off by Shepard’s posturing and inconsideration towards Dark as a friend.

Shepard, due to a dislike of flying, drives all over the country to his engagements and jobs, enjoying the open road and balancing between enjoying solitude, but also getting used to being without companionship, since breaking up with his partner Jessica Lange of 26 years. Dark, working at a deli in a New Mexico supermarket, prefers to live at home with his two dogs, and see as few people as possible. “I don’t like knowing people,” he jokes.

The two display a warmth together as old friends that is jovial to watch, despite their personality differences. Shepard, in his 60s, shows the wear and tear on his face, with hints of having been a lean, handsome man in his youth. Dark has a sharp wit that just slips in unexpectedly, looking more of the sidekick, yet more grounded and stronger than Shepard is.

Personally, it was very enjoyable to watch Dark unveil his hobby as an archivist, with bookshelves full of binders labeling letters, photographs, and videos that date back to the 1960s, with an expansive archival history of his life as an artist. As an amateur archivist myself, it gave me great pleasure and inspiration to see a kindred spirit onscreen.

His records are not only of his letters with Shepard, but also detail his relationship with his late wife, Scarlett, whose daughter O-Lan Jones married Shepard, and had a son with him. This family suffers a tremendous blow when Scarlett suffers a brain injury and her fight to heal leaves the family in difficult straits. The situation gets worse when Shepard not only leaves his wife for Lange, but abandons his 12-yr old son as well, leaving Dark act as father figure for him. Before, I was not a fan of Sam Shepard, despite enjoying his writing, because I felt his lone cowboy/rebel badass image was a concocted image of an artist’s idea of being cool, much like the romanticized images of Beat poets or jazz musicians or bikers. But upon this knowledge of his absolute selfishness, plus being more attracted to Hollywood and celebrity than being with his family, made me disgusted by him.

Dark was a more interesting figure because he was less pretentious, and didn’t have a need to become famous. He was an artist and an archivist for his own pleasures, not to appeal to a culture’s idea of what “cool” is. He is slightly eccentric, but very likable and amiable.

The film is a small venture, understanding the complications between two lifelong friends, between an extrovert (Shepard) and an introvert (Dark). It isn’t a particularly memorable film, but Dark proves to be an interesting character that sticks more in one’s mind than Shepard’s, despite his celebrity.

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