The Sam Shepard Technique Behind the Scenes at the Theater

Michael Almereyda’s This So-Called Disaster takes a tempestuous backstage look at Sam Shepard during the fall of 2000 as he directs his play The Late Henry Moss for its premiere performance in San Francisco. The play’s cast, top-heavy with movie celebrities, consists of Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, James Gammon, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin and Sheila Tousey. Though I’ve never seen The Late Henry Moss performed in its entirety, I do know that the play is loosely based on the ill-fated life of Mr. Shepard’s father. But I suspect that it’s less interesting as theater than Mr. Almereyda’s peculiarly convoluted documentary.

Over the years, I’ve seen many of Mr. Shepard’s productions on stage, and I recall being moderately impressed by their explosive renderings of family conflicts and sibling rivalries, but I can’t say they’ve continued to resonate in my mind. Yet with all the honors the 60-year-old Mr. Shepard has received over his 40-year career-as an actor, playwright and screenwriter, stage and screen director, poet, journalist, short-story writer, monologist and celebrated movie hunk besides-he qualifies as the closest thing we have to a bona fide Renaissance man.

Since it’s unlikely that many people will bother to see this latest manifestation of Mr. Shepard in Mr. Almereyda’s difficult-to-describe nonfiction enterprise, it’s reasonable to assume that Mr. Shepard had some compelling personal reason to reveal some hitherto guarded aspects of himself-if only to himself and his most devoted admirers. Mr. Almereyda gives us a clue as he recalls the initiation of the project: “When Sam Shepard asked me to make a movie about his new play, neither of us had a fixed idea about what would come of it. I showed up with digital-video cameras and a small crew. Soon enough, I had cause to realize how rare it is for actors to allow themselves to be filmed in rehearsal-under pressure, searching, exposed.”

Mr. Almereyda goes on to describe the imponderables of his own modus operandi: “In the editing room, I considered resorting to half-whispered narration-like what you’d get in a nature program about lemurs in Madagascar, tracking the elusive creatures in their natural habitat. A certain rawness, an element of exposure, lingers in the finished movie. There’s something thrilling, I think, in the spectacle of working actors-in T-shirts, pajamas and a variety of odd hats-recklessly flinging themselves from the heights of Sam Shepard’s language. And there’s something equally fascinating in watching Mr. Shepard wrestle in public with the ghost of his father, whose death triggered the writing of the play.”

So there we have it. Mr. Shepard wanted to say something about his feelings for his father, dead or alive-or, rather, dead and resurrected-in the messy process of bringing a literary conceit to life by collaborating with a troupe of largely autonomous actors. It’s a blurry form of double exposure, if you will, an uneasy mixture of rhetorical affectation with bits and pieces of confessional sincerity. Since I’ve only seen Messrs. Nolte, Penn, Harrelson, Gammon and Marin on the screen (I can’t remember ever having seen Ms. Tousey in any medium), I can only speculate on how good any of these people were onstage. There is no substitute, after all, for physical immediacy. But what were they showing me? Something that looked like good stage work represented through the medium of film, or the real thing? It’s a tricky proposition any way you look at it, especially when the writer and director, Mr. Shepard, is giving his own intuitively expert performance. The awkward moment when Mr. Shepard begins to tease Mr. Nolte about his football days at the University of Nebraska is alone worth the price of admission. Otherwise, This So-Called Disaster is an unbridled orgy of uninhibited Stanislavsky.

Retracing the Tramp

Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) at the Film Forum was either hailed or reviled in its time as the first Chaplin film to tackle a theme of social significance with any degree of ideological consistency. Yet its alleged topicality was always the least of its charms. Chaplin, like René Clair before him in À Nous la Liberté (1931) and Jacques Tati after him in Mon Oncle (1958), hated machinery for reasons more aesthetic than ecological-an attitude more Luddite than Leninist. Still, the mechanical feeding sequence in Modern Times is probably the funniest routine in cinema history. It’s hardly surprising that the humor is derived not from the historical logic or technological plausibility of the feeder, but from Charlie’s goggle-eyed reaction to his mechanical tormentor. Chaplin’s factory may be half–René Clair pseudo-modern and half–Fritz Lang comic-strip totalitarian, but Chaplin himself is the supreme cinematic performer of all time.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe today that an astute 30’s critic like Meyer Levin could praise Chaplin for aligning the Tramp with the world’s working stiffs. The feeling that emerges most clearly from Chaplin’s characterization is a studied distaste for his comrades in industry. Nothing personal or anti-socialistic, mind you; the Tramp just happens to hate work, and this hatred is consistent with the logic of his classical prototypes. He may chortle at the dove-like gyrations of a young middle-class couple, but he ends up yearning for the most grotesque tokens of economic security-a cow to be milked at the front door, grapevines crawling around the cottage like Virginia creepers, and a resourceful street gamine as immaculate child bride (played by Paulette Goddard-here and in The Great Dictator -as the urban descendant of Mary Pickford’s girl of the rural slums). For the sake of this regressively childlike and sexless ménage, the Tramp announces proudly that he will make the supreme sacrifice and go to work. He is clearly one of the poetically unemployed, Mr. Micawber masquerading as Mother Courage.

At times, the Tramp’s happiness is uncomfortably opportunistic. Unjustly imprisoned, he thwarts an attempted jailbreak and is rewarded with a comfortable cell and other special privileges. The siren call of liberty holds no charm for him, and his fellow convicts, like his fellow workers, sink into the slough of anonymous grayness reserved for abject creatures of economic necessity; hardly the stuff of comrades in arms for the supposedly oncoming revolution. All in all, Chaplin’s Tramp gets off quite a few stops before the Finland Station.

The Western Front

Also being revived at Film Forum is Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), from a screenplay by Carl Foreman and produced by Stanley Kramer. The press release claims the film is the favorite Western of three Presidents, Reagan, Clinton and Bush II. It’s certainly not mine, but if you’ve never seen it, you could do a lot worse these days than to check it out, particularly with this spanking new print struck directly from the original negative, which is unprecedented even for its original release 52 years ago.

This 85-minute Oscar contender came out at a time when Oscar contenders could run for only 85 minutes without being considered hopelessly unimportant. The story concerns an aging sheriff (Gary Cooper) about to retire with his Quaker bride (Grace Kelly) and move to another town in the Old West to operate a grocery store. But he’s forced to confront a returning outlaw (Ian MacDonald), just released from prison and vowing revenge with his gang on the sheriff who sent him there in the first place. To make matters more desperate, and more bitterly ironic, the sheriff is abandoned by the whole town, which he has made safe for its law-abiding citizens. Even his deputy (Lloyd Bridges) deserts him out of pique at not having been named his successor.

High Noon is one of the least scenic and horse-oriented Westerns ever made, as all the action is confined to a dusty town and its train station, where the arch villain is scheduled to arrive shortly before high noon on Judgment Day. There are innumerable shots of clocks taken from all angles, punctuating with showy montage the suspenseful passage of time.

Howard Hawks once asserted that his Rio Bravo (1959), with John Wayne and Dean Martin in the lead roles, was partly intended as a rebuke to High Noon , which spent most of its running time commiserating with its miserably lonely and forsaken hero, who then proceeds virtually single-handedly to kill the whole gang, after which he drops his badge into the dirt at his feet to express his disgust with all the townspeople belatedly gathered around him after the big shoot-out.

Wayne’s sheriff in Rio Bravo , facing hordes of hired killers, pointedly refuses help from law-abiding volunteers because their inexpertness with firearms would make them more trouble than their civic spirit is worth. Zinnemann retorted angrily that Hawks was entitled to his opinion, but High Noon and Rio Bravo were two very different movies. Hawks wanted to remake High Noon to his own specifications, and he went ahead and did so. For his own part, Zinnemann added, he had no desire to remake Rio Bravo . Strangely, I’m more sympathetic to Zinnemann now than I was back during my polemical frenzy with the politique des auteurs .

I am still suspicious, however, of the exalted reputation of High Noon for its allegedly allegorical assault on the McCarthyism of the 50’s by soon-to-be blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman. The moral cowardice of an entire frontier community is tediously depicted again and again by a steady procession of hammy character actors displaying the same old yellow streak. In Zinnemann’s defense, however, I should add that Wayne’s sheriff in Rio Bravo actually ends up with three very competent helpers in his deputy played by Martin, a young gunslinger played by Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan’s old geezer, still very handy with a shotgun.

When I interviewed Zinnemann (1907-1997) in 1982 after his last somewhat underrated film, Five Days One Summer , I brought up the sensitive subject of Grace Kelly’s singularly pallid performance in High Noon . I say “sensitive” because it was strongly rumored that Kelly had a ring-a-ding-ding with Zinnemann, as was frequently her wont on the sets of her movies. Zinnemann freely acknowledged that she hadn’t been very good despite all his efforts, and then he went on to say that Hitchcock had managed to get so much more out of her in Rear Window (1954), Dial M for Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). I liked and respected him for his frankness and generosity, and I felt vaguely guilty for having hammered him so hard in The American Cinema .

I still prefer the romanticism of Ford in The Searchers and Hawks in Rio Bravo to the comparatively sober realism of Zinnemann in High Noon , and I still think that Wayne has been as underrated as Cooper has been overrated. Indeed, I firmly believe that Joel McCrea had a wider acting range than did Cooper. I was recently looking at Zinnemann’s Julia , and though I didn’t like most of the movie, the last few scenes in Germany reminded me of the Zinnemann of People on Sunday (1930), a potentially free spirit too often hobbled in his later career by an excess of prudence and caution, but still more than incidentally a very nice guy.