Home Video Hovel: Shepard & Dark, by Craig Schroeder
The story of Sam Shepard, famed actor and playwright, and Johnny Dark, an eccentric recluse living on the Mexican border, is one that deserves to be told. Their friendship is weird. It’s romantic. The existence of their friendship is a love letter to the written word. Virtually every beat in their forty year friendship can be traced back to Dark’s linen closet, where he stores almost every letter, postcard and photograph sent between the two. Their story is an epistolary tale. Treva Wurmfield’s documentary Shepard & Dark attempts to examine their friendship and the odd nature in which it has flourished. But the film is never as interesting as it’s premise and ultimately feels empty and incomplete.
It’s a shame that the film isn’t as compelling as its subjects. Sam Shepard’s story is one that is widely known: a product of the Beat generation, he’s a celebrated playwright and actor (most recently in Jeff Nichols’ bizarrely charming Mud). Johnny Dark’s story is a bit more strange. Once an extrovert from New Jersey, he now lives alone in Deming, New Mexico, a city that is uncomfortably close to the dangerous border town of Juarez. After a long and varied job history, including writing gigs and work as a veterinarian technician, he now works as a clerk in a predominantly Mexican supermarket. He’s a man who is presented as simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and he is. One moment he’s searching for the best place to smoke weed in a crowded office building and minutes later he’s discussing the brain aneurysm that effectively took the love of his life. But the film never gives Dark the attention he deserves; instead it treats him as a part to Sam Shepard’s whole.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the obvious influence of the Beat Generation on the pair. Sam Shepard became the heir-apparent of many of the Beat writers he idolized. However, the Beat Generation’s influence on Johnny Dark is a bit more internalized. Dark’s a Jack Kerouac super fan, hanging on to letters and postcards he received from Kerouac himself. However, these obvious influences go largely unexplored. In David’s recent review of John Krokida’s Kill You Darlings, David referred to the Beat Generation as “navel-gazing slackers.” As a fan of the Beat writers (Allen Ginsberg, specifically), I’d like to recommend a film that is a perfect retort; but Shepard & Dark is not that film. In fact, it may reinforce David’s opinion; it spends far too long pondering the nature of Shepard and Dark’s relationship and their history, rather than fleshing out either. Numerous aspects of each man’s life (i.e. Shepard’s relationship with his alcoholic father) are presented, explored as thoroughly as a Wikipedia entry and, just as they begin to bring a new dynamic into the men’s relationship, the film moves on.
The most irritating flaw of the film is it’s excessive focus on the pair’s recent attempts to publish their extensive letters, which ultimately detracts from the power of the letters themselves. Not to imply that the idea of the publication is boring; in fact, quite the opposite – from the moment they present the idea, I found myself less interested in the film and more interested in reading the collected volume of letters (the fate of which has yet to be seen). Showing the creative process is understandable, but the part of the process we’re witnessing is the mere compilation of letters, which is, for lack of a better word, dull. The film doesn’t investigate the letters thoroughly enough to justify the amount of time it spends on their possible publication.
Luckily, both Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark are interesting and sympathetic, which makes the film more watchable than it should be. In fact, the film is at it’s best during what seems like B-roll footage of each man engaging in the banal minutiae of day-to-day life. In one such instance, Johnny Dark is walking down the street, when he spots his shadow on a brick wall and spends a few minutes alone, making his shadow dance on the wall before laughing, stealing a quick peek at the camera and continuing on his way. It’s in these throwaway moments when the film is most endearing.
Shepard & Dark is a film I really wanted to like, but one that is, ultimately, disappointing. There’s no doubt that the subject matter is engaging, but for a film that promised to examine the nature of friendship and the lives of those involved, it just doesn’t deliver. Sam Shepard is a fascinating force in pop culture. Johnny Dark is a curious and likable enigma. But Shepard & Dark is a film that too often relies on the subject’s personalities and reputations to do the heavy lifting.