After a year of bracingly original documentaries like Spellbound, Bus 174 *, Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, My Architect, etc., a new crop (plus the jaw-dropping, belly-busting Super Size Me, which opens Friday) demonstrates again that the world is a more confounded (and confounding) place than Hollywood studio executives would have you believe. Three entertaining documentaries—This So-Called Disaster (IFC Films), Mayor of theSunset Strip (First Look Pictures), and The Agronomist (ThinkFilm)—may be broadly classified as "profiles," yet each views its subject from a distinctly different vantage, and each suggests an original way of charting the connection between the public persona and the actual person.
It's especially difficult to connect Sam Shepard the glamorous camera subject with Sam Shepard the febrile playwright of Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West—which is one of the many reasons that Michael Almereyda's This So-Called Disaster is so intriguing. A colleague says she's always disappointed to find that Shepard isn't the Chuck Yeager of The Right Stuff (1983): forthright, confident, easy in his frontier handsomeness. The Shepard that emerges from interviews is a skittery, hands-off dude—a hipster jackrabbit. When we meet him, he's enduring (there is no other word) an interview with a writer from the Associated Press. He's folded in shadow, head down, as if trying to protect himself from invisible bats. When the words won't come and the photographer hovers too close, he gestures helplessly, cries, "Back off!" and runs his hands through his hair in an attempt to harvest his thoughts and restore his equilibrium. That studied cool can't conceal an amazing touchiness.
What's also amazing is that it was the ultra-private Shepard who approached Almereyda in 2001 and invited him to document the rehearsals of his play, The Late Henry Moss, in San Francisco, with a big-deal cast that included Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, James Gammon, Cheech Marin, and Woody Harrelson. I'm still puzzling over that invitation. It's possible that Shepard saw an opportunity to learn something through Almereyda's camera about a process that seems to come less and less naturally to him, and felt comfortable with the director's alert but noninvasive presence. (Shepard had played Hamlet Sr. in Almereyda's Manhattan-set Hamlet ).
I should mention that Almereyda and I are old friends, and that I write about his movies gingerly, if at all. Over a year ago, I watched a rough assemblage on an editing machine that (I can say this now) didn't gel. Almereyda had 140 hours of raw footage and needed to grope his way around in it, discovering his subject by touch and feel.
Not that he spells that subject out. The movie can easily be taken as an artless, fly-on-the-wall document—a couple of hours hanging out with the stars. We see snatches of the first read-through and watch the actors and director flesh out bits of business. We see them sprawled in the auditorium posing questions to Shepard about his hyper-realistic style, which knocks down "the fourth wall" and allows for ritual, dance, soliloquy—"magic." But this is a pretty straightforward and not even very colorful process: I've seen more interesting give-and-take in community-theater rehearsals. And the play itself—about two brothers (Penn and Nolte) who quarrel over the body of their dead father (Gammon), who intermittently takes the stage, arrested in some middle world between death and life—is a dud: three-plus hours of bombast, with little (beyond the resonant set-up) of the morbidly allusive poetry and skewed/skewered archetypes of Shepard's best works from the '70s.
No, what knits this film together—so that the whole is so much more than the sum of its fragments—is its view of Shepard trying to let go of his father, a controlling presence in almost every significant play he has written. (In the movie, the photographer Johnny Dark describes Shepard's dramas as "two sides of Sam talking to each other with an old man in the background.") It's not that Shepard invokes his dad in rehearsals. Anything but. It's that the play puts his father directly before our eyes, and the vision leads Shepard—in an interview shot months later, on the porch of his ranch—to recount his last meetings with the old man. When his dad was an increasingly desperate alcoholic, impossible when drunk (most of the time) and just bearable when sober; not going gently into that good night but inflicting himself upon his son with an undying rage.
Sometimes you learn more from what people won't say than what they will—from what they can't confront. In one scene, Nolte explains that right before rehearsals he'd lost his mother, he'd had grueling surgery, and he couldn't walk—that he was in bad, bad shape. He phoned Shepard to pull out of the show, and Shepard said, "Why don't we just pretend that none of it happened? See you Monday." Later, Shepard shakes off talk of children with Nolte and Penn: He won't go there, at least on camera. He's a fascinating contrast with Nolte, who's so hugely, trustingly open, who tells of becoming an actor after a complete "personality disintegration"—and a rebuilding that began with reading Stanislavsky's trilogy for actors. He says, "I thought, if I could find the playwright who was writing what I was feeling as a human being, that's what I should pursue."
The movie goes glancingly, hilariously, into other kinds of acting epiphanies. For Penn, who needs to steady himself for an interview with smokes and a brewski in a theater seat beside Shepard, the decision to act dates from a visit to his high school by the actor Anthony Zerbe—specifically the sight of Zerbe's cool, zippered boots. Shepard recalls something that seems as superficial: watching Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz and leaving the theater flashing his choppers in the same way. "Some part of your body takes on the actor," Shepard explains, showing some teeth. But identity in Shepard's plays is so mutable that this idea isn't as shallow as it sounds.
It's fun to see actors doing what they do and to see them through the eyes of a director. At one point, Shepard confesses that the challenge of directing is that "if you fail in their language they can turn around and wipe you out." Another high point: The wiggy Harrelson mock-praises (or is he for real?) Penn—who is not a laid-back guy, even when he tries to project that he is—for his performance in the Madonna catastrophe Shanghai Surprise. But This So-Called Disaster works by indirection until the end, when the play finally opens and, simultaneously, Shepard recalls his dad's final days—their last, explosive argument, and the posthumous letter in which the "this" of the movie's title is revealed. (No, it's not the production—although it might have been.)
In his (otherwise dead-on) review, J. Hoberman describes the documentary as "scripted." That's misleading: What he means is meticulously shaped. I've never talked with Almereyda about Shepard at length, but I doubt that he had a clue going into this project what would emerge on the other side—least of all a movie in which Shepard, like Hamlet, lays to rest his father's ghost. And I suspect that if Almereyda had said as much to Shepard at the outset, his subject would have leapt on the nearest plane—and Shepard, however immortal his Chuck Yeager, doesn't fly.