The past is a source of both joy and sorrow in Shepard & Dark, an intimate documentary about the 47-year-long friendship between famed playwright and actor Sam Shepard and writer Johnny Dark. Shepard and Dark met in 1963 in New York City and immediately hit it off, despite the fact that, as both men agree, they were extremely different—Shepard the itinerant Southern boy consumed with issues of fate and regret, and Dark the hermetic New Jersey native who embraced his roles as a caregiver and homebody. The two would eventually form a family once Shepard married the daughter of Dark’s wife, and their thirteen years as a domestic unit formed the backdrop for much of their later relationship, in which—even after Shepard left his wife and teenage son, as well as Dark and his tragically handicapped spouse, to run away with Jessica Lange—the two regularly communicated through letters.
Those correspondences form the basis of Treva Wurmfeld’s documentary, which charts Shepard and Dark’s reunion in order to edit and arrange their copious communiqués for publication. The project entails much sifting through old memories, which for Dark—an obsessive archivist who has all his old letters and photos neatly arranged in binders and books—is an exciting means of re-engaging, and reshaping, the past. Not so for Shepard, however, who finds the endeavor increasingly arduous and unpleasant, in large part because of still-lingering hurt over the callousness of his drunkard father, regret over his abandonment of his family for selfish reasons, and the realization that, the more he looks into himself—a psychoanalytic process that he has little use for—the more he grows despondent over the pain he caused those he loved the most.
When not casually enjoying the company of its subjects, Wurmfeld’s doc cannily melds the sound of Dark and Shepard reading their old dispatches to aged snapshots and home movies of the two in earlier years. That aesthetic structure creates a haunting sense of the simultaneously wonderful and sad feelings both men have about lives and loves now gone, never to be recaptured. When, toward film’s end, Shepard ditches Dark and the letter-publishing task altogether, it’s yet another example of how excavating the past can open old wounds, as well as the way in which, no matter how aware they are of their foolish and hurtful behavior, some people are forever fated to repeat the same mistakes time and again.