This So-Called Disaster (2004)

by Michael Healey

13 May 2004


What We Talk About When We Talk About Acting

Acting can’t be that tough, can it? P. Diddy is starring on Broadway, and reality television is turning the cultural landscape into a Warholian nightmare. Why should we listen to some pretentious, goateed actor pontificate about the Method when everybody and his grandmother play, knowingly, a variety of roles in daily life? Few of us are lucky enough to get paid for it.

Shot in 2001, during rehearsals for the San Francisco premiere of Sam Shepard’s play, The Late Henry Moss, Michael Almereyda’s This So-Called Disaster documents the mysterious nuts and bolts of the dramatic process. Fragmented read-throughs and rehearsals are interspersed with interviews during which Shepard and cast members such as Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and James Gammon struggle to articulate the “hows” and “whys” of their chosen field. The film urges us to regard the theater professional as one who speaks thoughts and emotions that seem inexpressible, and whose reconfiguration of past experiences may verge on the pathological. As Gammon says (or rather, croaks), “Acting is desperate because acting is revealing.”

cover art

This So-called Disaster

Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Sam Shepard, James Gammon, Woody Harrelson, Cheech Marin, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Sheila Tousey

(IFC Films)
US theatrical: 21 Apr 2004 (Limited release)

Directing Nolte and Penn as estranged brothers, with Gammon as their deceased, drunken, violent father, Shepard ruminates about the “fragile territory” that isolates actors and directors, which they must find a way to inhabit during the long rehearsal period. Shepard calls it “finding a language [with which] to enter” that shared metaphorical space, drawing attention to the performing arts’ great contradiction: whereas preparations must be fiercely internal, success depends upon the actors’ ability to communicate, first with their collaborators, and then an audience. This territory remains doubly charged for Shepard, as The Late Henry Moss is rooted—like so much of his work—in his own troubled relationship with his alcoholic father.

The brothers’ relationship also invites comparisons to earlier Shepard plays, such as True West, although what we see of The Late Henry Moss suggests that it’s not nearly as incisive. Johnny Dark, a longtime friend, postulates that Shepard explores his own divided nature by writing brothers with contrasting personalities, a theory borne out when Shepard himself admits to using the plays as a way of “structuring” his emotions with respect to his father. He is upfront, albeit slightly uncomfortable, about the autobiographical nature of his work. Dark’s comments lead one to think that conflicting, irresoluble urges toward the public and the private reside at the heart of Shepard’s creative impulse.

Although they may slip occasionally into theatrical platitudes (about “trust,” “organic” development, etc.), none lapses into clichéd “writing/acting as therapy” meandering. Reflections on the intensely introspective nature of their craft are rooted in specificity. When these men—for the context is a Sam Shepard play, after all; the lone actress, Sheila Tousey, remains on the periphery—try to explain their career choices, we notice remarkable similarities between their acting styles and their respective personalities.

Take Nolte, ever the open book, who describes observing his mother’s final days in the hospital, just days before rehearsals began, as if he were preparing for a part: she taught me how to die, he says. Rubbing his face with his huge paws or practicing his lines with the aid of a tape recorder, Nolte often comes across as a truly disturbed individual. He professes to have chosen an acting career after reading Stanislavsky while piecing himself together following a nervous breakdown (which he memorably calls a “personality disintegration”) at 21.

The notoriously guarded Penn says he became interested in drama after the actor Anthony Zerbe visited his California high school. It wasn’t anything Zerbe said or did, Penn claims; rather, he liked the older man’s boots and was looking for something to occupy his afternoons while everyone else did homework. Seated beside Shepard and drinking steadily, Penn looks at least slightly tipsy. Or is he just playing “Sean Penn” for Almereyda’s camera?

The film implies this question throughout, frequently with edgy (and not necessarily intentional) humor. When Woody Harrelson, who has a small role in The Late Henry Moss, forgets his lines during a table read, Penn gets in a dig to the effect of, “Shape up, pal, this isn’t White Men Can’t Jump.” Harrelson pauses (perhaps trying, as are we, to decide whether Penn is joking), but then he counters with loopily sarcastic praise of the other man’s “underrated performance in Shanghai Surprise.” With an expression halfway between sneering and smiling, Penn agrees (ironically?) with Harrelson’s assessment, putting an end to the pissing contest. The camera apparently influences such interactions. Are Penn and Harrelson hamming it up for the documentary’s sake, or is Almereyda’s presence what keeps the scene from escalating?

The enigmatic Shepard is known to be wary of publicity (demonstrated here in his frustration with an obtuse AP interviewer), and yet his most famous plays are unapologetically self-centered. As Almereyda said in a recent New York Times interview, “A writer is someone who hides his secrets in print.” The unanswered question hanging over the film is, Why would that person volunteer to be the subject of a documentary? Has he surrounded himself with bigger stars in hope of remaining hidden in plain sight?

The real surprise is Shepard’s candor when recounting for Almereyda the painful details of his father’s deterioration. His delivery, although not glib, is still more anecdotal than one would expect, which seems oddly appropriate when he tells the story of an opening night performance in Santa Fe early in his career. His father was removed from the audience for voicing, aggressively, his disapproval over perceived inaccuracies in the actors’ representations of characters based on Shepard family members. After convincing security guards that he was the playwright’s father and being allowed back into the theater, the elder Shepard took his seat and started right back in where he’d left off, lambasting the unfortunate cast for “getting it wrong.”

But occasionally, during an interview on what appears to be Shepard’s back porch, the veneer will crack—a rushed phrase here, an uncomfortable chuckle there—suggesting that he has not entirely resolved his feelings about his father. A former Fulbright scholar, veteran of the Air Force, and Illinois wheat farmer reduced to odd jobs such as selling Hershey bars during the Depression, the man’s spirit haunts his son’s work. Shepard, let’s not forget, played Hamlet’s Ghost in Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), starring Ethan Hawke. Like the Ghost, Shepard’s character Henry Moss is trapped in that liminal space between this world and the next. Shepard himself, despite voicing the hope that this will be his last play on the theme of paternal obsession, seems unable to let go of the man he seeks to lay to rest.

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