The backstage drama is one of the oldest clichés in show business, but veteran trickster Michael Almereyda—he of the video-on-video Ethan Hawke Hamlet—successfully dusts it off in This So-Called Disaster. Almereyda’s behind-the-scenes documentary of Sam Shepard directing his play The Late Henry Moss is both resonant and skillfully devious.
Shepard played the Ghost in Almereyda’s Hamlet, but it’s Almereyda who’s the spook here, invisible but ubiquitous. The movie’s look is stylishly jagged but, unusual for the showboat director, the intent is self-effacing; Almereyda eliminates his presence so as to keep close to the action. He haunts the rehearsals, staging his own PR and eavesdropping on the production’s other interviews. “It’s all a challenge . . . ” Shepard unhelpfully tells a journalist as Almereyda signals something of his own viewpoint with a cut to the writer casually directing his play with a glass of red wine in his hand.
The hottest ticket in San Francisco when it premiered for a limited run at the Magic Theater in late 2000, The Late Henry Moss boasted a high-voltage Hollywood cast—Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin. Featuring a pair of conflicted brothers (Nolte and Penn) and an overbearing, hard-drinking father in a stylized frontier landscape, the play recalls Curse of the Starving Class and True West. It’s quintessential Shepard—or, as Penn puts it, “the plight of being a man where being a man doesn’t have any definition.” The writer expresses the hope that Henry Moss will be his final play on the subject, but that seems unlikely once Almereyda gets Shepard talking about his dad—a larger-than-life Depression kid cum World War II warrior who wound up a violent drunk. (The movie’s title refers to the elder Shepard’s characterization of his family.)
Henry Moss got mixed reviews, but that hardly matters here, where the actors are, in essence, performing their performances. As a study of acting, the movie compares interestingly to Hamlet, another all-star indie with an emphasis on role-playing. Penn and Nolte insure a surplus of beefy bluster—especially since they seem to be portraying their on-camera selves whenever they are offstage. In a typical bit of business, the supremely diffident Penn tricks the ever vulnerable Nolte into eating a jalapeño pepper. Each man has a richly self-dramatizing solo in which he explains how he happened to become an actor.
As the stars wax philosophical, the supporting actors are shown mainly honing their craft: Marin is warm and unpretentious; Harrelson, also affable, comes across as genuinely demented. Sheila Tousey has the lone female role, as a Mexican death-angel wench, while Shepard veteran James Gammon plays the dead father with an alkie croak that Nolte seems determined to grow into. Their climactic pas de deux is something that Almereyda never gets enough of.
Actors drift in and out of character as the filmmaker shuffles chronology to suit himself—or rather, to promote the sense of Shepard free-associating the production out of his head. (It’s as though he made the play to catch his own conscience.) Shepard is seen critiquing his dialogue (“let’s get rid of this Joseph Conrad shit”), conducting scenes for rhythm, and searching for the appropriate language with which to talk to his actors. For his part, Penn makes the surprising comment that writers suffer even more for their art than actors.
Fascinated by the project’s proliferating delusions, Almereyda contrives to have his movie reach critical mass not with the third-act dance of death but with Shepard discussing the conditions under which his own father died—complete with video fragment of the old man. It’s a contribution to the small genre of verité performance. Deconstructing as it annotates, adapting while it records, This So-Called Disaster reverses Shepard’s strategies. This acted and scripted so-called documentary converts literature into confession and intimate stage performances into big screen turns.