Tuesday, August 01, 2017


A year or so ago I went on a Sam Shepard binge, partly fed by the book and movie about his relationship with a male friend, Johnny Dark, an integral part of his family.  I got the DVD and the book about the buddies, which opened the door a little wider into Shepard’s body of work.  He was a pan-media figure: musician, writer, actor, director, horseman (that’s an art form, too), father, lover and husband.  Partner.

Sam’s archetype is based on his father, a rigid, traumatized, alcoholic man, a common sort of man after WWII, shaped by war into a person who doesn’t fit anywhere except the desert — sky-country.  (He had been a pilot.)  But Sam himself was warm and funny, a family man, who had episodes of his father’s persona — flying high on open roads.  He did a lot of drinking and speed, crashed more than once, was arrested for drunk driving more than once, but whether he was really alcoholic depends on how strict a definition one uses.  As is his strategy, he confronted the alcohol in a hardcore AA group.

What he himself says is that one of the governing patterns of his life and work is that of the damaged hero whom a woman tries to heal.  I know this pattern very well, but haven’t exactly managed it properly.  It’s the Deborah Kerr/Robert Mitchum thing that powers movies.  It’s not about screwing, but more of a Jungian anima/animus thing in which they yearn to join souls.  The slashed open flesh of the warrior speaks to the listening needle of the devoted woman as it travels the vinyl of the record.  (Too fancy an analogy, but it captures the pre-determined repititiousness.)

“These were men who came back from the war, had to settle down, raise a family and send the kids to school—and they just couldn’t handle it. There was something outrageous about it. I still don’t know what it was—maybe living through those adventures in the war and then having to come back to suburbia. Anyway, the women took it on the nose, and it wasn’t like they said, Hey Jack, you know, down the road, I’m leaving. They sat there and took it. I think there was a kind of heroism in those women. They were tough and selfless in a way. What they sacrificed at the hands of those maniacs “  (PARIS REVIEW:  ISSUE 142, SPRING 1997)

YouTube has a whole passel of vids from PBS interviews, other speaking events, the actual movies, scenes from plays, and so on.  It’s a rich lode if you love the West.  Sam, through a character, demands whether a man loves another person or the landscape more.  It is the landscape that wins.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDjtxabtdKs  This link is only to one vid, but it will bring up many others.

There are aspects that haven’t been discussed much like the difference between this archetype in the South, where it’s about swamps and subjugation, darkness and reptiles — except for the beaches and the Gulf of Mexico — and the same sort of man in the SW where the landscape is a peneplain made mystical by sky.  There is another division between the man who is heterosexual and, like Sam or Johnny, accept the ministrations of women and care for the resulting children — and the same sort of intimate man who loves other men sexually and protects other men’s children.  Not much written about or by the latter.  The assumption has been that such a man would be feminine, but my students dearly loved “The Cowboys” (1972) in which John Wayne leads a cattle drive with juvenile drovers.

Shepard is a loner who enters community by exploiting raging confrontation, which he may or may not have done in real life.  I have a feeling that he displaced most of it to the stage or the page, because his real life relationships lasted a long time.  Of course, if one is married to a movie star, they are not usually home, which means they need a solid home base.  Johnny Dark provided that for Sam, even during marriage.  Johnny’s always just himself and his own relationships, but always open.  A photographer -- he sees what's there.

Johnny Dark and Sam Shepard

http://www.americantheatre.org/2014/02/15/1308/  It seems likely that Sam was the home-body for Jessica Lange, esp. when the children were small.

I say all this to caution others (and myself) against making assumptions.  Sam appears to evade stereotypes by employing many of them, overlapping in psychiatric Venn diagrams of “cluster B” diagnoses.  But that means that there are many “hooks” by which people — often fans — attach to him.  He generally handles that with good humor, but is relieved to escape.

It’s clear that each generation is shaped both as a whole and as individuals by the events of the time.  What is more complex is that the father who was embittered and estranged by WWII shapes a son who is indignantly deprived of his father’s heroism, since that man is now only a drunk, as well as losing his own chance to be a hero.  It’s one of those existentialist crises that follows war.

WWII could be seen as the climax of the Industrial Revolution, ending in the Atomic Bomb.  The Punk movement then took on the debris and cleared the way for the Cyber Revolution which has only begun.  It may climax and end with the extinction of humans.  Along the way it will do something to fathers and sons, but we don’t know what yet.  Maybe fathers will simply disappear, so the story will be mothers and sons.  Maybe the sons will become thugs.

Sometimes — this may be irrelevant — it occurs to me that old white men do not “speak” computer. (Not inability to keyboard, but failure to understand the structured webwork that kids travel on all day every day.) Those old white men are at the same disadvantage as the Native American tribal chiefs trying to negotiate treaties with OWM.  They don’t speak the language and they don’t picture the world.  They die out.  The kids will soon inherit whatever world persists from the OWM.

This next link is to a discussion by Shepard of “Days of Heaven” (1978), which was the first consciousness of Shepard that I had.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsC-dCcSB78   It was filmed north of here, just across the Alberta border, a continuation of our ecosystem.  It is an entirely different kind of movie than “Heaven’s Gate  (1980) which was filmed on the US side of the border, both sides of Glacier Park.    Both directors are in love with the past, with the stand-out big tough educated male in that context.  You’d think that Kris Kristopherson would come off something like Sam Shepherd, but it’s not there.  It’s not Kris’ fault.  It’s in the original vision, the diff between Malick and Cimino.  Screening the two movies together would be very interesting.  IMHO, one is “truly West” and the other is just war.  One goes straight to the land and one is all about being an Alpha male.

Previous posts by me about Sam Shepard on these dates:

2/5/14, 1/4/14, 12/12/13, 11/6/13/, 10/27/13

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Days of Heaven is one of my favorite movies. It gives me chills, especially the monologue of the concluding scene. It is a masterpiece. Your article makes me want to look at everything about it that Youtube has to offer.