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Review: 'Shepard & Dark' — two sides of a curmudgeonly coin

As the playwright Sam Shepard and his friend Johnny Dark curate letters from their long correspondence, layers of their relationship and personalities are revealed.

October 10, 2013|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Johnny Dark, left, and Sam Shepard in "Shepard & Dark."
Johnny Dark, left, and Sam Shepard in "Shepard & Dark." (Music Box Films )

There is a distinctive intimacy to a handwritten letter between friends. You can feel the emotion behind the stroke of the pen, layers of meaning in the choice of a word.

Put the letter writers in a room together and there is both comfort and disquiet, as if the other knows, perhaps, too much.

"Shepard & Dark," a candid new documentary, captures that dichotomy as it riffles through the long correspondence and relationship between playwright-actor Sam Shepard and his close friend, Johnny Dark, a man of odd-jobs, intelligence and the kind of curated obscurity of someone fascinated by, but not envious of, the fame.

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In the process, filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld reveals a deeply personal side of one famously private creative voice and introduces us to another. Shepard, with a rich and prolific career, a Pulitzer for one of his many plays and an Oscar nomination for one of his many movies. Dark, with a trove of eccentric photographs and meticulous archives of their time together and apart. Inside all those envelopes is a remarkable history of two men who came of age in a time of transition. Caught between rebellion and convention, they ended up on very different paths.

The documentary, which marks Wurmfeld's feature debut, is structured in a relatively linear way around the friends' very non-linear relationship. The two met in the 1960s in New York when Shepard was just getting started as a playwright and Dark was an early appreciator of the avant-garde. After the kind of accidental encounter that usually shows up in romantic comedies, they quickly became a part of each other's lives.

Dark married an older woman; Shepard married one of her daughters. For years, they created a sprawling blended family that included Shepard's first son, Jesse. Their correspondence survived Shepard's break with the family to be with actress Jessica Lange. The old friends reconnected in earnest after Shepard's relationship with Lange ended a few years ago.

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The film centers on a project to turn the correspondence into a book and find a permanent home for Dark's archives. Shepard has come to the small New Mexico town where Dark now lives to begin the serious work of cutting away all but the best for the book.

Watching the interplay, the men seem like two curmudgeonly sides of the same coin. Shepard keeps an ancient typewriter close. Dark works on an '80s-era computer that looks like a museum piece. Both have opinions about the papers and the process. There are sticking points on what to include and what time to eat dinner.

For all the similarities in their thinking — which created the initial bond — they have different charms, though both work well on screen.

The film takes us inside Dark's quiet, orderly life, with his dogs and his kindness equally well known around town. A steady supply of weed takes the edge off any difficulties.

Shepard is all edges, talking of the mistakes he's repeated, the rootlessness he often feels, plucking on his guitar late into the night.

When Wurmfeld lets them fall into old stories sparked by a line in a letter, it's a nice bit of serendipity. Allowing them to dissolve into laughter at some private joke is not as satisfying. At one point the film and the book stalled over Shepard and Dark's differences, the filmmaker at the mercy of the whims of her unruly subjects.

The documentary ultimately acts as a tease for the book, which the University of Texas Press is publishing this month. There is just enough of Shepard's lyrical prose and Dark's depth and humor to whet the appetite. You walk out wanting to read at least a few of them beginning to end.

'Shepard & Dark'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills


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