Sadly, Judge Michael Nazarewycz has learned this is not a new buddy cop show.
People still write letters?
I'm always entertained by stories from celebrities who are old friends with other celebrities. This seems most prevalent in comedy circles, where guys "come up together" and later reminisce (which to us often sounds like namedropping). Jon Stewart is great for these anecdotes when old comic buddies appear as guests on The Daily Show. Just as rich and famous people have their rich and famous old friends, so too must they have friends from their past who are neither rich nor famous—people who are just as important to them as our old friends are to us. Thus is the story of Shepard & Dark.
Facts of the Case
In the world of entertainment, Sam Shepard (Mud) is a living legend. As a playwright, he won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Buried Child). As an actor, he has an Oscar nomination to his name (Best Supporting Actor, The Right Stuff). As a tabloid subject, he spent twenty-seven years partnered with Jessica Lange (The Postman Always Rings Twice). He is well-recognized, well-admired, and well-respected.
Johnny Dark, on the other hand…not so much. Dark met Shepard when the young playwright was gaining notice on the Off-Off-Broadway scene in the 1960s. They've been friends ever since and at times so close, they lived together with their wives as one large communal family. (Trivia: Dark's wife was the mother of Shepard's wife.) As Shepard's star rose, Dark remained the everyman. Now in his golden years, he contently works at a supermarket, writes for pleasure, and routinely gets stoned.
Over the decades, the men have remained close friends via honest-to-goodness handwritten letters, the bulk of which have been collected for publication.
Shepard & Dark is a documentary that requires a significant amount of storytelling balance in order to succeed. This goes beyond properly representing the obvious differences between the two men: Shepard is a famous, quiet traveler, while Dark is an unknown, unabashed homebody. No, the greater balancing act revolves around Shepard as one of the film's subjects.
Director Treva Wurmfeld (Fair Game) finds success by recognizing that if there is too much focus on Shepard then the doc becomes more of a biopic and Dark is marginalized, but without enough Shepard (his celebrity is certainly the film's biggest hook) then all she has are two old men who write letters to each other. Wurmfeld focuses just enough on Shepard to achieve the best balance (although the dearth of references to Lange—a woman with whom Shepard spent half the time of his friendship with Dark—seems intentional).
Wurmfeld also wisely rolls film and turns Dark loose. He's an interesting character. He's well-written, quick-witted, and an unapologetic pothead who is happiest when he is sitting at home alone (with his dogs) and banging out prose on an ancient desktop computer. Most importantly, however, he is compulsive (as in obsessive), a trait not only critical to the film, but to the entire project. Dark has every letter Shepard ever wrote him. Over decades. In plastic sheets and binders. Stored chronologically. With related pictures where available. It's amazing. (Shepard, on the other hand, has many—if not most but certainly not all—of Dark's letters just stuffed into boxes.)
The men spend their time onscreen making each other laugh, sharing memories, philosophizing, singing, and at one point showing a little conflict. By the end of the film, even though I got to know them both (or at least know about them), I felt something was still missing. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I wonder if Shepard the Man acquiesced to Shepard the Celebrity and remained protective of his personal world. Dark is such a lively character, perhaps Shepard appears to be subdued when instead he is actually guarded.
The DVD's image and sound quality are perfectly serviceable, and about as good as the camera(s) they used will allow. Any flaws in either video or audio—shadowy images and hollow sound are the most common—are not due to any transfer issues, but rather the filming conditions.
Extras include four deleted scenes totaling approximately 7 minutes. These scenes follow the same structure as those in the finished film, and are simply more of the same. There are also four extended interviews totaling about 16 minutes. These are lengthier pieces where each man offers personal musings on life and love. They are wisely included as extras, as they would have felt clunky within the construct of the film. There is also a humorous list, accompanied by stills, titled "7 Things I Learned From You," which is a reference to a list discussed in the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Wurmfeld struggles in making Shepard & Dark an interesting watch. It has its moments, particularly when Shepard speaks of his father (and his desire to be nothing like the patriarch), and how the Shepard/Dark "family" began, blossomed, struggled, and ultimately ended (the demise occurring partly because of Shepard's pursuit of Lange). There are too many down moments—moments when the film really is two old men writing letters to each other. Watching a man—even a living legend like Shepard—read silently to himself isn't the least bit interesting. Even at an efficient 89 minutes, and even with excellent use of a treasure trove of old pictures and home movies, it drags in spots, to its detriment.
It's hard to not like either man, their joint life story is compelling, and their bond is clearly genuine.
It's Sam Shepard, for cryin' out loud. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
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