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Friday, May 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
"It's just another horse race," says playwright/director Sam Shepard, looking a bit nervous backstage before the San Francisco premiere of his play "The Late Henry Moss." As curtain time draws near, Shepard takes a seat in the back of the theater, and the camera catches the view of an audience member staring briefly at this tall man with the etched face, wondering who he might be.
"This So-Called Disaster," a deceptively casual documentary from Michael Almereyda (best known for his smart 2000 screen adaptation of "Hamlet," with Ethan Hawke, Liev Schreiber and Shepard as the ghost), goes a long way toward answering that question. Shepard invited Almereyda to document the staging of "Henry Moss," which premiered in 2000 with Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, James Gammon and Woody Harrelson in the cast. And while the resulting film is definitely geared for a very specific audience (those already familiar with Shepard's career will get the most from it), it provides a fascinating portrait of art and an artist in progress.
Shepard's plays he's written several dozen, since 1964 often center around a troubled father/son relationship and/or a pair of dueling brothers, with dialogue that approaches sparse poetry. "The Late Henry Moss" has all of these trademarks: Nolte and Penn play brothers Earl and Ray; Gammon, his crackling voice as low as the last half-inch in a whiskey bottle, plays their alcoholic father Henry, who's dead but doesn't seem to know it.
Scenes from the rehearsal process alternate with interview footage with Shepard, who sits on a rustic porch and talks about his own alcoholic father, who died in 1984. There are autobiographical elements in "Henry Moss," he says, but this laconic man doesn't seem interested in spelling out what's real and what isn't. "It's not a Xerox of my life," he finally says, and leaves it at that. But the sense of his father as a walking ghost (whom we see, eerily, in old home-movie footage, looking wizened and vaguely sinister) seems eternally present for Shepard he's forgiven him, but not forgotten.
And while the star-studded cast provides some Hollywood glamour there's a funny moment in which Penn and Harrelson josh each other about, respectively, their work in "Shanghai Surprise" and "White Men Can't Jump" they quickly disappear into their roles as working actors, each clearly regarding the production as a labor of love. Ultimately, you leave "This So-Called Disaster" with renewed respect for Shepard, who comes off as a kind of quiet hero: a man of words, confronting his past with little fuss, and from it creating a legacy.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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