Saturday, January 04, 2014

"SILENT TONGUE" by Sam Shepard

Sheila Tousey and the Texas prairie

“Silent Tongue” (shot in 1992, released in 1994) was the first film that Sam Shepard both wrote and directed.  He intended it to be a black-and-white Western, a throwback, but it ended up “sepia,” like old photos.  I’m going to suggest that he wrote and staged this movie as though it were a play except with a little more space (enough for horses) and that it is as much or more Beckett and Shakespeare as John Ford.  I will also try to make the case that he comes closer to the experience of the prairie than any glamour shots of Monument Valley, though both use the long landscapes as though they were cycloramas, kuppelhorizonts at the back of the stage.  

The critics hated “Silent Tongue”, likely because the critics judged it by John Ford templates and because they were urbanites with no other frame of reference.  Oddly, in the end it comes closer to capturing a kind of Native American spirituality than many movies tackling the subject on purpose, and Sam ends up, as always, writing about his own family.  As do we all.

Sheila Tousey, Alan Bates, Dermot Mulroney

Let’s get the family out of the way first.  There are two fathers in this story, played with bombastic verbal skill by two stalwart excessives of stage and screen:  Alan Bates (whom I take to be a version of Johnny Dark) and Richard Harris (an aspect of Sam himself.)  (Shepard spent three years in England at an impressionable age.)  In the background is an approximation of a small road show complete with freaks, managing to be something of a cross between borscht belt schtick and a medieval mystery play.  The songs are the ones that Sam, about the time he was writing this, had been summoning out of his folk song memory for his toddler daughter, but it would be a mistake to overlook the percussive feet of the tap-dancing boy, since Shepard is so much a drummer.  (An early play was nothing but a single actor with percussion accompaniment.) 

Richard Harris

Some of us often remark that one gets at least two families in life: one that’s biological and therefore accidental, and one based on affinities, chosen. A third comes out of one’s own procreation.  Later family can often make reparation for the first and I think it would be fair to say that Shepard and Johnny Dark, as shown in their published letters, formed a healing affinity family that enabled Sam’s biological family with Jessica Lange, for which Shepard was the progenitor.  His model was not his father, but Dark, who also backed him up by fathering Sam’s earlier son.  

But there was always a deep tension between the two families -- the one with Dark and the one with Lange -- that has not been given as much attention as Shepard’s biological, military-based father -- no doubt because Sam seems so often to be portraying that earlier man before the military officer decayed into a drunk.  Certainly in the minds of casting directors.  This particular film, in my view, is for Shepard an attempt at redemption of soul-deep guilt over leaving the first family for the flummery and narcissism of Hollywood, but also for the devotion of an exceptional woman.

The tree is by now such a ubiquitous symbol of so many things that we accept this constructed or at least theatrical tree on the prairie.  It suggests the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, though at its base is a generous campfire instead of the spring-fed pool in the European version.  It is hung with offal of animals, strung like Malibu wind-chimes or -- to some of us -- like Geronimo’s tree where discarded spectacles are hung tinkling.  But also it invokes the pop-icon image of the burial tree where Plains Indians wrapped and secured their dead.  And, of course, the tree onstage in “Waiting for Godot.”  

The theme is the refusal to let old love relationships die.  Sam was married to one of two sisters, O-Lan, but their mother Scarlett was the real power figure, married to Johnny Dark, Sam’s close friend.  I think she would be pleased to be represented by Tantoo Cardinal.  In 1979 Scarlett had a deep-brain aneurysm that removed much of her thought processes in mysterious ways (“cutting her tongue out”), but didn’t kill her until 2010.  Johnny Dark stayed very close to her and so did Sam when he wasn’t working.  He was always split between leaving to make money and staying to help.

Tantoo Cardinal
What the real-life sisters thought about this is unknown, but this film seems to capture the terrible resentment and rage of being tied into something complex and even unnatural.  The son Dark and Shepard shared was also very much wounded by Sam leaving.  Scarlett was the mother of everyone in the group, which lived together.  She seems always to have accepted, to have loved, to enjoy, never rebuking or trying to escape or attack.  Sometimes I wonder if Jessica didn’t have some of the same characteristics.

To Sam, this had to have seemed unnatural, supernatural, but inescapable.  The rage of O-Lan wasn't easy to deal with.  He doesn’t seem to have left the guilt when he left her.  In fact, he dithered for a whole year before abandoning her for Jessica and went after at the urging of Dark.  So in this movie he’s both the son clutching a mannequin to prevent the death of the woman, as well as the father wanting to set his son free with a living woman.  

River Phoenix

By this time, halfway through the film, Alan Bates has become a Lear, guided by his fool son.  Sam has left the real-life pattern for a theatrical pattern, which is more absurd, more surreal, more Beckett.  Also, I would be interested in what a Shakespeare scholar would have to say about the soliloquies.  Are there somewhere written comparisons between the soliloquies of Beckett and Shakespeare?  Shepard says he finally gave up writing these long monologues because they were too hard for actors (except for Bates and Harris) but I suspect also that his inner voice was splitting into an argument with himself, the old binary European division of thesis, antithesis and -- rarely -- synthesis. 

On one level this movie is just a horror film with a lot of American Western stuff and a few Indians.  On another it is about the medieval mysteries of death, reincarnation, evil and punishment, control and greed.  The grotesques of the sideshow are intensely human -- the petrified man who sees it all, the flexible girl who cares for the camel, the two dwarves, the two burlesque clowns, the fire-eater -- and yet they're mysterious.  The Indians are not set-apart but only iconic -- mostly silhouettes on the horizon or the bare legs of the horseback riders when they return the Bates character, somewhat punished but not extinguished.  Except for the tribal women, who are the crux of the whole thing, and -- Greek drama style -- the true carriers of morality.  They are the ghosts, but also the real.

If one removes God from the mystery plays, what remains is not  unlike the world-view of the Plains people, the same questions and assumptions about “death and reincarnation, evil and punishment, control and greed.”  They worried (and still do) about vengeance, the resentment of the dead reaching into the lives of living families, squeezing and snuffing in shadowy ways.  Hippie-blithe dream-catcher floatiness has nothing to do with it.  In the end, the tribal way is often acceptance, in the sense of accepting what can’t be changed.  Figures drawn on buckskin against the broad unscrolling horizon of time on a scale far beyond human.

This film was shot in Texas, but it’s a good example of the genre called “Montana Gothic.”  Patia Stephens in her essay on Dirck Van Sickle (available on Kindle through Amazon) quote the author as saying in “Montana Gothic,”   “The whole scene was in shades of gray, and the utter stillness as well as lack of color made it look like a faded stereoscopic view of somewhere far removed from where Deke felt he should be, and he shivered: it was alien, rejecting, and he was somehow trapped into it and now afraid he’d ended here by error, by walking backward with his eyes closed into what could either be his future -- or his fate.”   A classic description of dissociation brought on by intense and unresolvable emotional experience.  His partner in one story believes “his dead fiancée has somehow become Montana herself, the land as uber-mother embodying mother, wife and lover.”  

What is the difference between a womb and a grave?  Maybe it is a loaded wheelbarrow, like that of the man who now and then crosses the film screen on his way from one to the other.

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