Shepard and Dark: Film Review

Shepard and Dark Film Still - H 2012

Shepard and Dark Film Still - H 2012

Doc offers more than the expected celebrity appeal.

Treva Wurmfeld's doc-bio offers not just an intimate perspective on the playwright's biography but some touching reflections on the comforts and perils of long-term friendship.

NEW YORK — Fame and obscurity coexist happily, for the most part, in Treva Wurmfeld's Shepard and Dark, a look at the decades-long friendship between Sam Shepard and his onetime in-law Johnny Dark. The good-looking, easygoing doc settles in with its two subjects, offering not just an intimate perspective on the playwright's biography but some touching reflections on the comforts and perils of long-term friendship.

Evidently prompted by a book project compiling letters the two wrote each other through the years, the film benefits greatly from Dark's near-obsessive archival tendencies. Universities in Texas have acquired mountains of material related to Shepard's plays, while Dark kept not just every letter they wrote but boxes full of photos and home movies. Since the two lived communally for years -- Dark's wife was Shepard's first wife's mother, and the two couples lived together with Shepard's son -- the photographic record is especially rich.

The home material affords a sideways view of Shepard's career on stage and screen, but more attention is paid to the personal demons that informed his writing -- the alcoholic, critical father; the broken relationships with women; the tendency toward what Shepard describes as "the blues." Time-traveling through a sheaf of correspondence, the author observes "my life is falling apart" and laments making the same mistakes again and again.

But Wurmfeld wisely refuses to make her film one-sided, taking plenty of time to draw Dark's character as well. Friendly but hermetic, he's happy to live in the middle of nowhere, working at a supermarket deli and spending his off-hours with simple pleasures: books, baths, introspection and marijuana. His isolation makes him an excellent philosophical foil for Shepard, who divides his time between the theater and compulsive road trips.

Their letters (which we hear them read in voiceover) are full of thoughtful reflections on life and how to live it; both men express astonishment that a seemingly unlikely friendship could be so nourishing, despite differences in geography and circumstance, for so long. Poignantly, Wurmfeld captures a hiccup in the relationship, as the two briefly share office and living space while trying to whittle stacks of letters into a readable book. Here, little differences in sensibility bubble into major irritants, offering a first-hand look at the kind of rift that looks petty to outsiders but can appear insurmountable from within.

Production Companies: Hobby Films, Vile Bohea
Director: Treva Wurmfeld
Producer: Amy Hobby
Executive producers: Emily Wachtel, Treva Wurmfeld
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Sandra Adair
No rating, 88 minutes.