Sunday, October 27, 2013


Shepard and Dark” is a book and movie project (an increasingly popular pairing since one sells the other) that explores the relationship between two men, Sam Shepard (actor and playwright) and Johnny Dark (hermit and deli clerk) through the letters they sent each other over many decades.  If I were inventing this story, I would switch their names: Sam is dark; Johnny is a shepherd. 

They met in Greenwich Village about the time I came to Browning, which is to say the Sixties, just at the beginning of the Big Paradigm Shift into the Aquarian Age.  They formed a hippie family with a mother and two daughters, easy-going and accepting, which shocks our present rigid cultural standards.  For one thing, sex was not the major premise, though Dark married a woman named Scarlett (who was not a scarlet woman) and Shepard married one of the two daughters and produced a son.  (The not-married daughter is not represented or discussed.  The son appears only in photos of early years.  It’s not at all clear that Shepard divorced this wife.  Who needs documents, except for these letters?) 

Shepard and Lange

But then times changed (this time a Paradigm Slide into capitalism) and Sam’s participation in the glamour culture of fame and fortune led him into obsession with “this blonde.”  (Since she was Jessica Lange, we tend to understand.) The money was big and he didn’t hoard it, sending much back to the original family and ending up with less security than Dark, who lives happily with his two dogs now that Scarlett has died of the brain hemorrhage that crippled her through much of her life.  (Shepard had participated tenderly to help with her rehabilitation, though no real recovery was possible.)  The idea that Dark lives in the middle of “nowhere” is a cultural stereotype that shows just how arrogant cities can be.  Shepard (who had moved the family into ever nicer homes as his income grew) agonized over leaving when he did.  It’s not that he’s unfeeling or even angry -- he just finds himself unmanageable.  Dark is willing to accept that.  His idea is that Sam should “go find out what it’s about.”  But he stays where he is-- not idle, simply self-sufficient.

Clearly the relationship at a deep level is mostly about the fathers of the two men:  overwhelming, high-achieving tough guys who may be heroes or villains, depending on how you look at it.  The fathers are exactly the kind of man that Shepard often plays so convincingly.  But now, in this documentary, he says he feels as though he were eighty, and that’s the way he looks as well.  His agent must have been in panic mode.  Even he is in panic mode: “My life is falling apart,” he says, though he has negotiated a sweet deal and they are staying in a fancy residence.  Dark takes no responsibility.  He just goes back home.  He's not mad -- just uncomfortable.   He loves to soak part of the day away, but the fancy bathtub is clearly designed for showers.  He’s a “Stays Put.”  Without Dark, Shepard resumes his mad torrent through life, setting up one event and project after another, always on the move.  He sends all project materials to Dark.  Letters in clear sleeves in binders, photos in albums.

Johnny Dark and Treva Wurmfeld

There’s a good interview with Treva Wurmfeld , the director, on  She is a feminist who sees that these two boys' fear they might become their fathers has prevented them from really growing up.  (Whatever that is.)  Shepard says, “I watched myself carefully for anything that was like my father and worked to get rid of it.”  I’m not sure Treva understands how much she has fit into the early Scarlett niche, a sort of mom, an accommodator and enabler, which is not a bad thing.  (I don’t give a damn what the present culture says.)  I think she is the kind of feminist who can accept all the roles women play, which is a lot easier than accepting all the roles men play.  These crowbar fathers were the products of WWII and the American West (where the grandfathers may have been Civil War veterans), a “type,” which is probably why Shepard’s plays speak to so many people.  It’s culture-wide PTSD.

In fact, I've had a friendship with a man like Shepard.  It was a modern email correspondence and we never met in person.  If we had had to live together for a few days, the friendship might end.  Other friendships of mine with people living the Hollywood life have been destroyed that way.  Since the Sixties I’ve been as “stays put” as I can and always preferred living in a place some call “nowhere.”  Even now, a woman in what passes for glamour culture in Montana came through and invited me for coffee.  Clearly she was frustrated with my Johnny Dark attitude.  It’s a cultural heresy.  Being heretics is not a bad foundation for a friendship in some ways.  But I like my supper at five o’clock, the way Johnny Dark does.

Lange says this about the character she plays in “American Horror Story”:  “The spine of the character is that thing of a wasted lifeThe idea that this woman has gone through life basically like a bulldozer, in the most selfish, self-centric fashion. Things just falling by the wayside. Now, she’s at a moment in her life where she’s confronted by all these things — her mortality; the fact that maybe she’s alone and what did she discard on the way, like her daughter, that could bring something meaningful, but it’s too late.”   Gender-switching is a conventional novelist’s strategy for disguising real life.  We’re learning to be a little suspicious.  Her father was evidently very much like the fathers of Shepard and Dark.  Sam is not the only one who falls into repetition -- it’s so seductive to think that this time you’ll figure it out.  Dark (and I) are sitting it out.  Less “in the dark” than Sam.  

But just being aware of the problem and seeing how it works is not always enough.  It’s like naming a disease in Latin -- same disease it was in English, so what is gained?  Time runs out.  Anyway, there are new characters with new agendas.  Sam had a son with O-Lan who was raised by Dark -- which means he will not have his father’s pattern in him (maybe) -- and two children (a son and a daughter) with Lange who were probably raised mostly by Lange.  But with Shepard for a father, an even more glamorous version of his own father, how will they work their way through life?   

The American Indians, at least in “pan-Indian” terms, are said to consider what will affect the next seven generations -- quite unlike American commerce lurching along from one holiday and crisis to another.  Has it been seven generations from Sam’s father down to Sam’s grandchildren?  Only four, I think.  In that sense, there’s still time.  One of the things Sam has done “right” (I’m guessing --  how would I know?) is that he hasn’t fought over money.  That means he’s turned out broke now and then but with relationships un-cracked by court battles.  He and Lange never formally married and neither has invoked common law marriage, which means they’ve ducked issues of who owns and owes what.  The kids with Lange are in their twenties.  Johnny Dark evidently had no children.  His two daughters had a different biological father.  I don’t expect he lets that get in the way.

What my Sam-like friend taught me about being the son of this kind of father is that such fathers are hated, but also they are loved intensely.  In an unreasonable and unmanageable way, the intimacy of such a relationship cannot be matched.  In fact, after childhood it leaves a yearning loneliness at the heart of everything.  These two guys, with their raggedy handwritten letters on paper torn out of small notebooks, have at least kept in touch.  That’s enlightening.  They read and joke.  But it breaks Sam’s heart.  “I can’t talk about just now,” he says, turning away.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

Sam's one of my favorite writers, not just about the West, but in terms of modern literature. Some of the work he did with Joe Chaykin is in the shadow of Sam Beckett, sure, but it goes further and has a uniquely American Western tone to it. It resonates with me every time I encounter it.

I hesitate to be too Freudian or Oedipal when it comes to figuring out the complicated things between fathers and sons. That's mostly because Freud is largely discredited, not because there isn't a lot to work out between fathers and sons.