Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Watch: Ellen Page And Kate Mara Are 'Tiny Detectives' In Hilarious 'True Detective' Parody Watch: Ellen Page And Kate Mara Are 'Tiny Detectives' In Hilarious 'True Detective' Parody 10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention From Hollywood 10 Female Directors Who Deserve More Attention From Hollywood Miles Teller Says Role In 'Divergent' Made Him Feel "Dead Inside," And He Took Movie "For Business Reasons" Miles Teller Says Role In 'Divergent' Made Him Feel "Dead Inside," And He Took Movie "For Business Reasons" First Look At 'The Dying Of The Light,' Paul Schrader Quits Film Over What Nicolas Winding Refn Calls "Artistic Disrespect" First Look At 'The Dying Of The Light,' Paul Schrader Quits Film Over What Nicolas Winding Refn Calls "Artistic Disrespect" New Images From 'Interstellar' Arrive, Christopher Nolan Says The Film Is A "Mirror" Of 'Inception' New Images From 'Interstellar' Arrive, Christopher Nolan Says The Film Is A "Mirror" Of 'Inception' Watch: New Trailer For ‘Kingsman: Secret Service’ Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson & Taron Egerton Star Watch: New Trailer For ‘Kingsman: Secret Service’ Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson & Taron Egerton Star Chilly New Banner For Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Explores A Cold New World Chilly New Banner For Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Explores A Cold New World 15 Films That Failed To Hit The 2014 Fall Festival Circuit 15 Films That Failed To Hit The 2014 Fall Festival Circuit Watch: Steven Soderbergh Re-Scores And Changes Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' To Black-And-White Watch: Steven Soderbergh Re-Scores And Changes Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' To Black-And-White Watch: Have A Threesome With Very NSFW Clip From 'Maps To The Stars' With Julianne Moore & John Cusack Watch: Have A Threesome With Very NSFW Clip From 'Maps To The Stars' With Julianne Moore & John Cusack First, Mostly Rave Reviews Arrive For David Fincher's 'Gone Girl' First, Mostly Rave Reviews Arrive For David Fincher's 'Gone Girl' Watch: New Hilarious Red-Band Trailer For 'The Interview' Starring Seth Rogen And James Franco Watch: New Hilarious Red-Band Trailer For 'The Interview' Starring Seth Rogen And James Franco Fantastic Fest Review: Hitman Thriller 'John Wick' Starring Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe & Adrianne Palicki Fantastic Fest Review: Hitman Thriller 'John Wick' Starring Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe & Adrianne Palicki 'Deadpool’ Spin-Off With Ryan Reynolds Is Finally Green Lit, Set For A Winter 2016 Release Date 'Deadpool’ Spin-Off With Ryan Reynolds Is Finally Green Lit, Set For A Winter 2016 Release Date 10 Films We Haven’t Yet Seen That May Be Serious Oscar Contenders 10 Films We Haven’t Yet Seen That May Be Serious Oscar Contenders The Best Documentaries Of 2014 So Far The Best Documentaries Of 2014 So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The Best Films Of 2014 So Far... The Best Films Of 2014 So Far... From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki The 10 Best & Worst Movie Sex Scenes The 10 Best & Worst Movie Sex Scenes

Review: Sam Shepard Documentary 'Shepard & Dark' A Fascinating Look At Male Friendship

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist September 28, 2013 at 2:02PM

The thorny dynamics of heterosexual male friendship is a fascinating black hole that few narrative films ever bother looking into. Instead, most choose to focus on simplistic, superficial social maneuvering (or the all-important bromance) without ever investigating the knotty emotional undercurrents that course through every lengthy male friendship. One of the chief pleasures of “Shepard & Dark,” which concerns the relationship between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard and his buddy Johnny Dark, who now runs a deli counter at a New Mexico supermarket, is that you get to see all the wonderful, horrible, emotionally raw components that go into male friendship and how those can go from being solid building blocks to puddles of muck.
0
Shepard & Dark

The thorny dynamics of heterosexual male friendship is a fascinating black hole that few narrative films ever bother looking into. Instead, most choose to focus on simplistic, superficial social maneuvering (or the all-important bromance) without ever investigating the knotty emotional undercurrents that course through every lengthy male friendship. One of the chief pleasures of “Shepard & Dark,” which concerns the relationship between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard and his buddy Johnny Dark, who now runs a deli counter at a New Mexico supermarket, is that you get to see all the wonderful, horrible, emotionally raw components that go into male friendship and how those can go from being solid building blocks to puddles of muck.

Shepard & Dark

Johnny Dark met Sam Shepard in Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s, after one of Shepard’s plays (in which, according to Dark, he filled the small theater with smoke—something that current safety codes would never, ever allow, even for art). Dark was drawn in by the play's content and found a welcoming friendship with Shepard, who was years away from becoming the angry darling of the theatrical world (much less the Academy Award-nominated star of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”). The two began a friendship primarily based on letter-writing; this epistolary relationship lasted, by their own estimation, for “nearly 50 years.”

As Treva Wurmfeld’s documentary begins, the two are reuniting in an effort to consolidate the massive sprawl of correspondence for an art exhibit and a book (the book, now finished and handsomely reproduced, is also out and quite good). This is something of a big deal, not the least of which because Shepard has long refused to write an autobiography, so the book of letters would serve as an unparalleled look into his innermost thoughts and feelings (the juicier anecdotes, of course, relating to his tumultuous, longtime relationship with Jessica Lange).

Shepard & Dark

When the movie starts, it’s very clear that these men are living two wildly different lives: Shepard you would recognize from seeing him in “The Right Stuff” or from attending one of his plays; Dark is slinging coleslaw down at the local food shopper. But as you watch Shepard go visit Dark at work, you can tell that there is a closeness, that these men aren’t all that different, especially when you watch Shepard on the phone explaining the project mostly as a way “to make some bread,” something that never seems to even occur to Dark (even though they’d both walk away with half a million dollars, and Dark could use this money a whole lot more than Shepard).

As the movie continues, it delves into the ways in which they were connected: for years Dark was married to a woman whose daughter married Shepard. “We were related for 13 years,” Dark muses, noting that the two families lived together for many years until, in the early ‘80s, Shepard fell in love with Lange. Both men had complex, emotionally violent relationships with alcoholic and abusive fathers (unsurprising, given Shepard’s output), a subject that is further complicated by the fact that, when Shepard left to pursue his relationship with Lange, Dark was left to largely raise Shepard’s son. And both men have also been defined by their relationships with women: Dark’s wife of many years fell ill after suffering a brain aneurysm. Shepard left the family unit for Lange and, shortly before embarking on this project, quietly broke off his relationship with her.

Shepard & Dark

Both men are fascinating, hangdog characters; each outlaws in their own way. Shepard would go on to produce plays of vitriolic outrage with deeply nuanced characters, while Dark—who, through the reading of his various letters, is often just as accomplished a writer as Shepard—would retreat inward, especially following his wife’s death. We watch as he lives his simple life, attended only by his dogs. At one point Shepard, in an interview, marvels at the level of hermetic loneliness Dark has accomplished, one without a single friend or acquaintance, and a lifestyle choice that ends up ultimately destroying their attempts at reconciling the material together.

There’s something both hilarious and sad about the men, and about their story, and about the way that they try to reconnect but can’t… quite… do it. There’s always been something romantic and powerful about relationships primarily built on letter-writing, and that’s true for Shepard and Dark too. Soon, though, the artistic ambitions of the project give way to petty jealousies and hurt feelings. The problem, of course, is that the movie lacks any kind of definitive resolution, and the filmmakers don’t exactly go out of their way to reassure the viewer that, yes, they did end up finishing the book and, yes, you can read it right now (it’s a corker). Instead, after all that effort being put into showing this relationship in its fullest terms, they allow the men to, true to their mythic southwestern surroundings, simply walk into the sunset, without so much as an envelope addressed “return to sender.” [B] 

This article is related to: Shepard & Dark, Reviews, Review, Sam Shepard


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates