The play's the thing... except in this case tried by Judge Diane Wild, where the play isn't as important as people talking about the play.
"You may think there's a great calamity that happened way back then, this so-called disaster between me and your mother. You might actually think it had something to do with you. But you're dead wrong."—Samuel Shepard Rogers, Sr.
The relationship between actor/writer/director Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down, Fool for Love) and his father, quoted above in a final letter to his son, is central to this documentary about the staging of Shepard's semi-autobiographical play, "The Late Henry Moss." Shepard's own father was a former Fulbright scholar and an alcoholic who tore apart his family, and the playwright conveys a mixture of respect and disillusionment both in the documentary and through the play.
"The Late Henry Moss" focuses on two sons who go in search of their own alcoholic father, but arrive to find him dead…though Henry doesn't quite realize he's dead.
Until the end of This So-Called Disaster, I thought the title referred to how poorly the play was received. In fact, it had a sold-out run in San Francisco—the world premiere documented here—and moved to New York with Ethan Hawke and Arliss Howard in the cast. Translating the play onto the stage could be seen as a so-called disaster, coming together as it does slowly and painfully, with director and actors doubting its reception until the last moment. But by using Shepard's father's last words as the title, it also points to the futility of understanding a man such as the late Henry Moss. Shepard himself seems reconciled to the memory of his father, and his bittersweet interviews about those memories form a large part of this movie.
The powerfully personal story combined with some powerful personalities—Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, among others—make This So-Called Disaster a compelling behind-the-scenes drama as we see the unglamorous struggle to portray the right emotion and bring the characters to life on stage.
Ignore the copy on the back of the DVD, which is another instance of the marketing department deciding to punch up the actual content, in this case by titillating with hints of celebrity intrigue: "As sparks begin to fly between their characters, they set off a powder keg of emotions so explosive that the actors themselves are drawn into the fray."
The play itself is emotionally fraught, and we see the director's and actors' exhaustion, frustration, and nerves on camera—not to mention glimpses of raw, powerful performances. But they are generally good-natured and always professional. Moments of teasing humor punctuate the proceedings, such as an exchange between Harrelson and Penn, mocking each other's Oscar-overlooked past performances. "You might get away with that shit on White Men Can't Jump," Penn taunts Harrelson, who counters: "You had an underrated performance in Shanghai Surprise."
The play itself is the powder keg. We see enough snippets of the actual performances to get a fair sense of the whole, and it is an intense blend of the gritty and the surreal. But the play's not the thing in this movie—the process is.
One of the most intriguing facets of this movie is how inarticulate Shepard—whose gift for the written word is undeniable—can be as a director, often struggling to express exactly what he wants from the actors."I know the territory I want to enter with the actor, but I can't find the language," he says at one point. The fact that he's working with an exceptional cast mitigates his seeming ineffectualness, but I wonder if he's not a better casting director than theatrical director.
We see bits of an interview he grants to an Associated Press reporter, where he is equally inarticulate and fairly uncooperative. His response to her question about the most challenging aspect of mounting the play is telling: "It's all a challenge," he says, head in hands.
Though Shepard is the real focus of the movie, This So-Called Disaster reveals some nice insights into Nick Nolte and Sean Penn's working styles and thoughts on their craft. Nolte says he was drawn to acting after a breakdown in his early 20s, when he was inspired to seek scripts that expressed his own feelings as a way of rebuilding his personality. Penn winks that he got into it for the coolness factor—specifically Anthony Zerbe's zippered boots ("this was the '70s," Penn explains) after that actor visited his high school. While Nolte seems a bit seedy and scattered, Penn is gruffly charming and the most articulate of the bunch in interviews. Everyone seems comfortable with the documentary crew—there are no obvious winks at the camera, which tends to keep a comfortable distance from its subjects.
Shot on digital video, the audio and visual aspects of this release are adequate for a low-budget documentary—in other words, not very good. The mono sound generally (but not always) renders the dialogue clearly, though some background noise comes through too loudly. The picture is very grainy and demonstrates poor lighting, likely since many of the shots were lit for the stage rather than for the documentary crew. Scenes often display odd color tones and poor contrast. There are no extras, except for previews of other movies, which start automatically.
The audience for this film is perhaps limited, but there are enough Sam Shepard fans and theater lovers out there who should embrace this disarmingly honest look at the inner workings of an acclaimed playwright and the process of staging a play.
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