In my head, Sam Shepard and I would be friends. Unlikely friends, perhaps, but, you know, simpatico. I like his sense of humor, I love the way he writes, and I love that he seems to care about nothing and everything at the same time. He’s a laid back badass who lives life on his own terms. Why did I never see this as a problem?
Shepard and Dark explores the real life friendship between Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, a reclusive deli owner from New Mexico. Dating back to the 1960s, their relationship unfolded primarily through letters, and after five decades tells the stories of two lives. Shepard is candid about needing income, and his motives in sorting and publishing the letters are transparent: he needs to pay the bills.
Ostensibly, Shepard’s honesty is refreshing, but as the two men begin delving into the past, the reality behind the frankness becomes clear. This is a somewhat selfish endeavor driven primarily by money. As the two men sort their letters (most undated and stored in a seemingly endless series of boxes), Shepard’s agitation is palpable. “A date would have been handy right about now,” he chastises, only half kidding. But the date, we know, was of no consequence at the time, and is no reflection upon the friendship. It’s a convenience necessitated by commercialism.
As the documentary unfolds, we learn about two men, their lives, their passions, and their families, through the lens of friendship. Shepard supported Dark after his wife experienced a devastating brain injury, and Dark was there when Shepard chose to leave his family and pursue Jessica Lange (a long term relationship that had quietly ended just prior to the making of this film). The letters, scattered though they may be, tell of life and love, and are of legitimate social significance.
It comes as a shock (to both Dark and the audience), when Shepard announces that he’s done with this little project – tired of digging up the past, tired of dwelling on this particular thing, tired, just generally, of the idea. It’s then that Dark recalls a slightly one-sided friendship, operated (by necessity) primarily on Sam’s terms. It’s a dynamic we all know, and that most of us forgive in a beloved friend until it’s impossible to ignore. It casts Shepard in a slightly self-serving light that’s less than flattering. More to the point, it casts him as a real person whose complexities make him as difficult as he is brilliant.