When Michael Almereyda was invited by Sam Shepard to make a documentary of the staging of his new play, The Late Henry Moss, he probably figured he’d be collecting combat pay. The cast, after all, included such notorious hellions as Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson, and Shepard himself isn’t known as Mr. Congeniality. But Almereyda had earlier directed Shepard as the Ghost in his film of Hamlet; his moviemaking career, which also includes such zilch-budget wonders as Twister (not the disaster pic), Another Girl Another Planet, and the Pixelvision vampire comedy Nadja, isn’t exactly mainstream. Maybe Shepard, who directed the San Francisco production in the fall of 2000, felt a kinship. In any event, Almereyda was given full access to the rehearsal process, and the result is This So-Called Disaster (at Film Forum), a must-see for Shepard devotees. He even gets Shepard to sit in a rocking chair on his porch and describe at length the miserable relationship he had with his alcoholic father.
Although his plays are famous for their feral, warring brothers, as in True West, Shepard, it turns out, grew up with two sisters. His primal connection, as he confides in his slow, uninflected voice, was with his father, who began to fall apart when Shepard was in his early teens. The snapshots we are shown of his father as a young man in crisp military uniform stand in brutal contrast to the raggedy older man who, as Shepard tells us, once had to be pulled from the audience of Buried Child because he was ranting that his son was falsifying family history.
Shepard began writing The Late Henry Moss after his father died, in 1984, and took more than ten years to finish. The central character, played here by James Gammon, is a dissolute father who is dead but doesn’t know it. Whatever its merits as theater, Henry Moss clearly issues from as personal a zone of rage and sorrow as O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In his asides to the cast, as well as to Almereyda, Shepard is careful not to play up the psychodrama angle; he says simply that this was a story he had to tell, that his intention was not to make a Xerox of his life. But Penn, who plays an estranged brother opposite Nolte, knows in his bones what’s at stake: “Whatever he [Shepard] lived through to write this,” Penn tells Almereyda, “is worse than anything I can feel.” Sitting beside him, the playwright offers up a thin smile of assent.
“This So-Called Disaster has a tabloid-TV appeal: We want to see if these volatile performers get on each other’s nerves.”
Some of these off-the-cuff interviews—which are interspersed with rehearsal snippets—are not terribly revealing. Penn, for example, may be astute in discussing Shepard’s work—he says the plays are about the plight of being a man when manhood no longer has a clear definition—but he doesn’t give up very much about himself or his craft. He talks about first being turned on to performing when the actor Anthony Zerbe appeared at his high school wearing cool zippered boots. (He doesn’t mention that his father was a TV director and his mother an actress.) Nolte is more forthcoming. At times, he seems to be turning his personal odyssey into his very own growling, Shepard-esque monologue, as when he describes his nervous breakdown at 21, which ended when he shut himself up in his room with the writings of Stanislavski. It was around this time in the movie that I feared James Lipton might worm his way into the interviewer’s chair, but not to worry: Almereyda keeps the blubbering in check.
For all its high-end ambitions, This So-Called Disaster has a tabloid-TV-like appeal: We want to see if these volatile performers get on each other’s nerves (answer: not much) and how they behave when they’re working up a role (answer: like professionals). I wish the documented material weren’t so spotty; it’s possible that Almereyda doesn’t understand the process of acting well enough to capture it sequentially—or maybe he didn’t get the footage he was hoping for. Still, watching these heavyweights grapple with the same mundane difficulties you might remember from your high-school drama days (like how to stage a fight) is weirdly inspiring. And as much as Shepard is admired by his cast, he is never deluded into thinking he’s God. He knows that if he can’t find the language to explain what he wants from them, they’ll “kill” him. “Trust and mistrust,” he says, “are very close.” Spoken like a real Sam Shepard character.
A very different kind of documentary is Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist, a fiercely heartbreaking film about the assassinated Haitian activist Jean Dominique, whom Demme first met briefly in the mid-eighties while making Haiti: Dreams of Democracy and subsequently encountered in New York in the early nineties, when Dominique was in exile. Demme interviewed Dominique around twenty times and includes much well-chosen archival footage of Haitian social and political history; he has said that his excuse for making the film was to “get to know this amazing man,” and you can certainly see why. Dominique is so intensely theatrical and fearless that it’s completely understandable why corrupt Haitian regimes, from the Duvaliers to Aristide, considered him a threat. Trained in agriculture, Dominique started Haiti’s first cinema club—the grammar of film, he says, is a “political act”Â—and then in 1968 purchased the lease on Radio Hait Inter, Haiti’s oldest radio station, and with his indomitable wife, Michèle Montas, initiated politically subversive broadcasts in Creole, the language of the country’s disenfranchised. It was outside his radio station, in April 2000, that Dominique was gunned down. (The “investigation” into his death is still ongoing.) After you see Dominique’s story, the present-day chaos and corruption in Haiti certainly come as no surprise; the miracle is that he stayed alive as long as he did. Free speech isn’t merely a shibboleth in The Agronomist. As embodied by Dominique, it’s a fire-breathing force.