Searching for Answers
The character, Henry Moss, of course realizes that he is in fact dead, although he’s walking around…. It would be unfair to expect that character to turn around and realize that he has an alternative, because he doesn’t.
—Sam Shepard, on the character he based on his father
In the opening scene of This So-Called Disaster, an AP reporter struggles to pull a good quote from playwright Sam Shepard about his latest directorial project. What, she asks a second time, are the challenges of both writing and directing? Shepard bows his head and massages his forehead, searching for an answer. “Oh boy,” he says.
As uncomfortable as he looks here, it was Shepard’s idea for director Michael Almereyda (they’d just worked together on Hamlet) to document his staging of The Late Henry Moss in San Francisco in November 2000. He explained his reasoning in an interview in the April 2004 American Theatre magazine: “I knew this was sort of a chance of a lifetime, with this many great actors. The thing is that, as is true of any production, you don’t see the work the actor does. You don’t see the sweat, the real grit, the energy that goes into making the character. These guys were absolutely dedicated. For movie stars, this was something that a lot of them hadn’t really encountered.”
A peek into this process, This So-Called Disaster is more impressionistic than comprehensive. We see the ephemera of putting on a show, from vocal exercises to scheduling (Sean Penn must leave by sundown to spend Halloween night with his kids “or I won’t be alive for the opening night anyway”). But it is difficult to gauge the trajectory of the actors’ work from the snippets of rehearsal we’re shown. Shepard’s brief, often physical rather than verbal, notes only occasionally help; he is wary, he says repeatedly, of upsetting the balance between director and performer: “You’re always faced in this condition of trust, you know, and its inches away from mistrust. If you fail in the language one time, it’s like with a horse, he can kill you.”
He’s talking about acting, but This So-Called Disaster confirms that it was at home with a violent father, and not in the theatre, that Shepard first recognized the danger of using the wrong word at the wrong time. Troubled fathers are a recurring theme in his work, and The Late Henry Moss considers his late father’s decline. (Photos and Super 8 films of him are included in the film.) Samuel Shepard Rogers Sr. was a WWII Air Force vet, Fulbright scholar, and alcoholic. The family fell apart when the Shepard was 12 or 13, he recalls, and Rogers spent his remaining years wandering from California to Texas to New Mexico, where he was killed in 1984 when he drunkenly stumbled on the highway and was hit by a car.
The play recounts the events leading to his death (he got a haircut, received a veteran’s check, picked up a woman, took a taxi, and went fishing), as two brothers argue and the father’s corpse lies in the back of the room. (Early in the film, Shepard’s friend and one-time in-law Johnny Dark offers his take on why Shepard so often writes brothers into his works when he himself grew up with two sisters: “It’s just the two sides of him talking to each other, struggling against each other and loving each other, with the old man always in the background.”)
“I was hoping that this could be the final play about that,” Shepard says in the film. “I don’t really want to return to it anymore.” Still, the film takes him back again, showing Shepard sitting on a porch, sharing sad, funny, but most of all real stories about his father. He remembers that Rogers disrupted a performance of Buried Child (for which Shepard won a Pulitzer in 1979) in Santa Fe by arguing about the veracity of what he was seeing on stage: “That’s not the way it was!”
Near film’s end, Shepard recalls the last time he saw his father. “It’s one of those meetings you never forget, you know, but it was horrible because he was absolutely smashed. And I should’ve known better, over the years, to try to sit down with him when he was in that state, because he was a mad man, he was crazy—he was totally crazy. And, uh, you know this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality thing that happens with true alcoholics.”
This So-Called Disaster is split, too. But only Shepard’s story proves engrossing. The This So-Called Disaster DVD has no extras, no commentary, not even a trailer. Which makes sense: the film is its own “making of” documentary. Near the end, Nolte reads a letter from Rogers to his son, excerpted (or reimagined) in Shepard’s short story, “See You in My Dreams” (from Shepard’s collection, Cruising Paradise): “You may think there’s a great calamity that happened way back then, this so-called disaster between me and your mother. You might actually think it had something to do with you, but you’re dead wrong. Whatever took place between me and her was strictly personal. See you in my dreams.” Just as Shepard can never know precisely what drove his father away from his family, This So-Called Disaster acknowledges, in its final moments, that an account of Shepard’s history can’t explain what makes this playwright tick.