It’s hard to know which element of Shepard & Dark is the most refreshingly quaint: the male friendship, the commitment to letter writing, or the quiet quality of its emotional expressiveness.
I say “quaint” because it evokes a different generation–one before cellphones and “instant” messages–yet there is a universally recognizable power, a real emotional pull, in this material. It comes from someplace other than nostalgia, someplace primal within us that recognizes the eternally good and steps over the cultural snickering of the moment, crying out “I want that.”
By “that,” we mean life-long friendship. The subject of the documentary is the relationship between American playwright Sam Shepard and the less famous writer, Johnny Dark. Friendships that last for decades are rare, in part because we live in a transient world and in part because we tend to structure our daily lives around work and family, causing the surfaces of our lives to intersect with different people at different stages of our lives. The relationships that transcend (and often outlast) the structural frameworks of our life are as rare as good marriages. In and through them we must learn how to accept change in others and, perhaps, how to change ourselves.
Dark and Shepard meet as young men in a typically no-nonsense fashion. Dark walked up to the playwright after seeing a play and simply began talking with him.
If communication is at the heart of most enduring relationships, it helps that both these men are writers and, hence, used to expressing themselves in a world that often pressures men to keep all things emotional to themselves. The film is roughly shaped around a project involving the pair donating their letters to an academic library and trying to forge a book deal. If Ben Franklin once famously opined that part of the allure of an autobiography was the ability to live one’s life all over again, well, the project has that going for it as well.
But the project doesn’t go smoothly, and the second act of the film carries real tension precisely to the degree that we’ve noticed in the biographical summary the qualities in these two men that that threaten to drive a wedge between what once seemed an inseparable bond. Does Johnny insist on having things his own way? Does Sam (consciously or unconsciously) look down on Johnny as a sidekick rather than accepting him as an equal?
Casting a shadow over the friendship’s strain is a fascinating back history of how Dark cared for Shepard’s ex-wife and son when the playwright abandoned them to pursue a relationship with actress Jessica Lange. There is an unverbalized but very real subtext regarding our personal and cultural assumptions about what it means to be committed to a relationship and what sort of relationships, if any, deserve these sorts of formal commitments or need them to survive and thrive.
Much more than a celebrity profile, Shepard & Dark is an important meditation about an underexamined but important topic: friendship. It is now available for digital download on Amazon, Vudu, and X-Box via Cinedigm.
Note: The “A better film about…” tag indicates that a new movie recently released with a similar theme, one that made me go, “you know what is a better film about [that theme]?” The bromance comedy Last Vegas opened on November 1. I kept thinking: “You know what is a better film about male friendship? Shepard & Dark.”