Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

Shepard & Dark

Directed by Treva Wurmfeld
Produced by Amy Hobby
With: Johnny Dark, and Sam Shepard
Cinematography: Treva Wurmfeld
Editing: Sandra Adair
Music: Graham Reynolds
Runtime: 92 min
Release Date: 11 October 2012
Color: Color

At first glance, first time director Treva Wurmfeld’s documentary Shepard and Dark, which chronicles the unique relationship between writer/actor Sam Shepard and his friend of 40+ years, Johnny Dark, seems like it will be one of those amateur home movies that got elevated to feature film status because of the famous person at its center. In the modern digital era, anyone can make a movie about anything, but the results rarely add up to a picture worth watching. For a good example of what usually results, see Jacob Hatley's 2010 film about Levon Helm, Ain't in it for my Health--or rather don't because as fascinating a man as Helm is, Ain't in it for my Health is just a collection of “intimate” footage that adds up to less than the sum of its parts. I was expecting the same from Shepard and Dark based on the fact that Wurmfeld has no prior directing credits and Shepard is rather notorious for not opening up much about his life. The first few minutes of the movie seemed to confirm my expectations--Shepard clearly needs cash and a publishing company is interested in archiving the 40 year correspondence between him and his quiet, not-at-all-famous pal, who have stayed in touch via letter-writing ever since they met in the late 60s. The film ostensibly sets out to explore the history of this friendship while the two men fashion their letters into a book. What results, however, is far more interesting.

Shepard and Dark is indeed a film about a unique friendship, but it also explores the psyche of males almost as well as Shepard's best plays. The fact that Shepard doesn't like to psychoanalyze himself or talk much about the past is actually an asset to this picture, because Dark is so much the opposite. In fact, these two men are about as different as can be; yet they share an interconnected history with many major aspects of their lives wrapped up in the other. The intricacies of the relationship are unlike any other two men and yet somehow crystallize a common experience of many who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Through extensive interviews with both subjects over what seems to be a rather extended period of time, Wurmfeld paints a clear picture of Shepard's restless, semi-destructive soul and Dark's contented, nurturing, but solitary nature. Her patient technique also captures the distinctive behavior of both individuals, together and separately, in ways just as telling as what they say to her camera. The fact that Dark is a near obsessive collector of all the letters, photographs and home movies from every aspect of his life, fills in the movie like filigree around the bones of verbal storytelling. This picture is very much about the lost art of written correspondence, yet it is told primarily through the oral tradition. Most fascinating is that with all this information carefully edited together; both men still emerge from the film as enigmas who are really known only to themselves. Some audiences may find that frustrating, but to me this is the picture’s major accomplishment. Shepard and Dark is one of the most interesting movies ever made about friendship and asks many uncomfortable questions about its meaning and value, and in doing so asks similar questions about life itself.