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This So-Called Disaster (Michael Almereyda, 2003)


    This So-Called Disaster, the new documentary from esteemed independent filmmaker Michael Almereyda, chronicles Sam Shepard’s direction of the first production of his new play “The Late Henry Moss” at The Magic Theater in San Francisco. Picking up three weeks into rehearsals, the director’s crew stays with the cast for the following three weeks, until the play’s opening night. “The Late Henry Moss” is, like many of Shepard’s plays, about masculine aggression and fraternal pressures, and it seems to have a funereal mood about it. Sean Penn, an actor in the cast, describes the theme of the work as “the plight of being a man when being a man doesn’t have any definition,” and that seems an apt a description of the text as any.  That being said, it’s tough to judge the quality of the play itself by watching the documentary, but its staging is not the subject so much as the emotions of those who provide the creative forces behind its conception.


    Almereyda deserves extra credit for not glamorizing the troupe of actors, which includes Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson and Cheech Marin. Before he shows any behind the scenes shenanigans, he establishes the serious intent of the work. He certainly is respectful of their input and their life experience, but he rarely indulges in the myth of the tortured artist that seems to dominate the average examination of the actor’s craft. It’s apparent that Shepard, who is sometimes an actor himself (he played the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Almereyda’s recent updating of Shakespeare), respects his performers and the footage captured gives the impression that his process is a collaborative one. Penn talks about how he generally feels more comfortable while working with writer/directors than those directors who mount another’s script because he has confidence that someone that writes something has already felt the emotions that exist in that work. When someone that’s “been there” asks and actor to “go there”, trust becomes less of an issue, Penn says, and from the testimony that Almereyda includes from Shepard, there’s very little doubt that he’s been to the emotionally dark places that he writes about.


    One of the main focuses of Disaster is Shepard’s disastrous relationship with his abusive and alcoholic father. He describes the experiences that he draws on while writing and notes that the monstrous father figure is an almost accidental recurring presence in his work. As much as the movie chronicles the launch of the play, it follows his attempts to use his art to put to rest the memories that still haunt him. At the same time that Shepard is using the experience to exorcise demons, his actors seek a similar healing process through their participation. By bringing their life experience to their roles, each of them seems to be attempting to reconcile themselves with it. Nolte, for example, describes how a near breakdown he had as a young man led him to the stage, and each of the actors interviewed seems to be similarly committed to their craft in a deeply personal way. As the play slowly comes together and acting, directing, writing, lighting, music all conspire to make that thing called theater, the movie grows increasingly cinematic. By the time the curtain rises on opening night, we are provided with what feels like a catharsis for not only the playwright and the actors, but for Almereyda too, since the film’s narrative finally feels complete. The elements of the stories Almereyda was telling fuse together in the same way as that the artistic elements behind the play. Because the scope all along is bigger than that of the play, it’s no surprise when the film extends beyond the premiere of the play. It’s a testament to Almereyda’s skillful intertwining of personal and fictional narratives that the final haunting moments of old home movie footage of Shepard’s father (which are so grainy that they could practically be Pixelvision) provide such tremendous release.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman