Day of the Sparrow

Shepard & Dark

Shepard & Dark

It’s difficult to convey the tedium of rural life. I live in a hamlet called Phoenicia, in the midst of the Catskill Mountains. One of my daily habits is walking up and down my road, which happens to be named High Street. A car will pass; I’ll wave. The person in the car will dimly wave back. A crow will caw. I’ll walk over to the Esopus River on the other side of the road, to watch the moving water. In the distance, on Route 28, a blue car will pass. Then I’ll return to my double-wide trailer to make millet.

Everyone else in America has no time; I have too much time. But once a year, 12 miles away, the Woodstock Film Festival convenes. It’s really like the circus coming to town. Thin women with startling cheekbones stride across the town green. Wiry-haired Russian-born animators from Brooklyn passionately hand you their calling cards. Plus real celebrities! Once I stood six feet from Woody Harrelson, as a kind of neon light emanated from his torso. (Last year, I saw world-famous director Bruce Beresford, in the parking lot of the Woodstock Playhouse, before the U.S. premiere of Peace, Love & Misunderstanding. Beresford looked like a retired social studies teacher.)

I’ve been to every single Woodstock Film Festival (this is the 13th) and always pursue the same strategy—I see whatever movie is playing when I have free time. This removes the anxiety of choice. Nowadays I have a press pass, so I can get in for free. Today I saw Shepard & Dark, a documentary about Sam Shepard and his best friend, Johnny Dark (directed by newcomer Treva Wurmfeld). It’s a sad film, because during it, their friendship ends.

Johnny Dark works in a Mexican deli in Deming, N.M. He lives alone, with two dogs, numerous books, a piano. His life is simple and obscurely fulfilled. Johnny saves every single letter he’s ever received, in hand-labeled binders. (Many are from Sam Shepard.) Johnny takes his big dogs for walks around Deming. He flips through his photograph albums. Sometimes he watches Krishnamurti videos on his primitive TV. Johnny is a complete pothead.*

As for Sam Shepard, guess what he’s doing? He lives in a scientific think tank in Santa Fe! Apparently, the idea is for artists and scientific researchers to engage in dialogue. (Maybe Sam’s not there anymore, but he was during the filming.)

Documentaries ruin people’s lives. I’ve noticed this ever since the movie Crumb, which led R. Crumb’s brother to kill himself. Johnny Dark saw himself through the eyes of the camera, and realized that Sam was exploiting him. But it’s not true! Sam Shepard is a narcissistic, tormented, masterful playwright. He exploits everyone, but not intentionally. It’s simply his job. Johnny Dark, if you’re reading this disjointed essay—and I know you’re not—forgive Sam! The poor motherfucker already is laden with guilt, even as he therapeutically lassos steers on horseback! He abandoned his son when he was 13, to run off with Jessica Lange, whom he also eventually dropped! He’ll abandon his car mechanic, his podiatrist, everyone! Don’t let him abandon you! You’re the only person on earth who can save him!

*For some reason, it charmingly distracts me from my provincial life to watch someone else’s provincial life.

Sparrow lives in a double-wide trailer in Phoenicia, N.Y., with his wife, Violet Snow. He often writes for Ground Report. Sparrow has run for President of the United States five times. More by Sparrow