Sometimes a work of art is not even that artistic, it’s just merely interesting. Interesting enough, however, to be recommended, if not because it has depth but because it simply offers a bit more insight into other works of art by an artist. Such is the case with the 90 minute long 2003 documentary by director Michael Almereyda: This So-Called Disaster. The behind the scenes documentary offers a glimpse into the final few weeks of preparation that went into the 2000 premier of actor and playwright Sam Shepard’s play, The Late Henry Moss at San Francisco’s Magic Theater. Having read many of Shepard’s plays, I greatly respect the man as an artist. He is a good actor and a good playwright. No one will ever mistake his best dramas for the best that was offered by Eugene O’Neill, Henrik Ibsen, nor Tennessee Williams. However, his best work is very good, if occasionally repetitive in themes and scope. The play being produced and directed by Shepard, in many ways, seems more or less off the rack Shepard, and in the film we learn that Shepard basically admits that this play rehashes other, better plays. Nonetheless, in this deliterate age, there are a few scenes laid out which show promise.
The reason, however, that the documentary is merely satisfying, and not really good, much less great, has nothing to do with Shepard, nor the all star cast of actors: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson and comedian Cheech Marin (there are also veteran theater actors James Gammon and Sheila Tousey involved.) But, instead of a film revealing the actual processes that go into the acting mindset of actors, or a film that delineates the creative processes that drove Shepard to write certain scenes certain ways, the film is a jumble. The actors tend to have, at best, a hazy understanding of the play’s aims, and Shepard seems hesitant to discuss processes deeply involved in creativity, instead opting to deliver the safer and more banal exegesis of the play as an extension of his biography, which involves the death and drunken life of his debauchee father. This So-Called Disaster accentuates this banality by including photos and home film snippets of the dead man.
But none of this is anything that any reasonably competent cameraman from high school could not have gotten into; nor, for that matter, is the fact that the film is shot on harsh video, rather than film. There are some good moments in the documentary, but even they are not pursued at any length. The best example of this comes from a sequence wherein Nick Nolte digresses on how he became an actor, and some personal anecdotes that illuminate his present state of mind. But, most tellingly, Nolte relates a tale of the books he read when a young man, as he was in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Just as Nolte is about to explain the three books (all about acting, even though he had yet to act), and their effect on him, the film breaks away to another scene. It later returns to Nolte’s tale, and now he is about to speak to another aspect of his art, only to have the film divert its gaze. This occurs a third time, as well, when Nolte is talking of his extreme nervousness upon first acting live, on stage, in front of an audience. Just as he seems to be able to describe his experience as “finding himself”, the camera again digresses. The viewer is left with the impression that Nolte has nothing but that banality to offer, when it’s clear from the edit that Nolte had more to offer. Perhaps it was not that deep, but maybe it was. That Almereyda cuts the moment where he does never lets the audience know, and shows him to be satisfied with an unalloyed cliché. Such bad editing, along with the choice of video over film shows that Almereyda was not exactly at the height of his powers whilst making this film.
Yet, the film does a pretty good job of depicting Shepard as an interpretive director, if not a creative artist, in the way he discusses scenes with his actors. One thing that does stand out, though, is Shepard’s willingness to let his actors’ input influence his direction and the actual written words of the play. On the downside, he seems to often eschew his own well written words in favor of more direct banalities that suit his actors. It would have been interesting to see, or have discussed, the differences between Shepard’s final play’s draft and the way the play was redone to suit the particular peculiarities of his premiere cast. As far as anything creative having to do with Shepard, himself, the closest revelation the film offers has to do with Shepard’s anecdote about mimicking actor Burt Lancaster’s mouthly peculiarities during the film Vera Cruz, which the playwright watched as a child. As for the other actors, as mentioned, Nolte’s insights are shredded, Sean Penn and Cheech Marin come off as ciphers, and the only moments of promise, from stage veterans Gammon and Tousey, likewise get shredded. The only bon mot of what an actor might really being going through as the play takes shape comes from, of all sources, the lightweight Woody Harrelson, who is quite open and candid about his nervousness and lack of experience on the stage. Harrelson also is the only cast member seen clowning around, and acting, well, real in front of the camera, especially when he comically gores Penn’s ego by congratulating the noted Method actor on his, “underrated performance in film Shanghai Surprise“. Penn, no surprise, comes off stiff as a man with a dildo up his ass and about as sincere as his hairstyle is natural. He is especially annoying in a few scenes where he is being interviewed whilst sitting next to Shepard. He seems determined to prove his depth by spouting off on this or that, as if the interpretive artist seeking the approbation of the creative artist.
The DVD, put out by MGM, offers no bonus features, save a few theatrical trailers for other films. The title of the actual documentary remains a mystery until very late within the film, where we get a recitation of one of Shepard’s father’s letters, wherein he writes to his son about “this so-called disaster” of a marriage between the playwright’s mother and himself, and how none of the difficulties present in that breakup had anything to do with his son. It’s an intriguing moment, but it comes so late in the film, and so far out of left field that the viewer is left wondering why Almereyda did not include the tidbit earlier in the film, and somehow expound upon it. After all, if he deems it important enough to become titular, why not make it something at the core of the film, not throw it in as an afterthought? The film, after all, is about the play, and its making, and not the personal trauma that spawned it. By doing so, Almereyda sits on a fence and does not commit the documentary to either the personal insights of the creative artist nor does he reveal the process of interpreting such creativity to the masses. Thus, overall, This So-Called Disaster is not a disaster, but it’s nothing of any depth and specialness either. Still, it’s worth seeing, for the reasons detailed within, even if few will want to take a second peek.