This So-Called Disaster Review

Directed by Michael Almereyda, whose most well-known work is his Ethan Hawke ‘Hamlet’ five years ago, this documentary follows Sam Shepard as he directs his own play, 'The Late Henry Moss' at 'The Magic Theatre' in San Francisco in 2000. Given the strong personalities involved (the cast includes Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson), the pressure of the live situation and the emotional keynote of mid-west machismo running through the material, one could well have expected the rehearsal process for the play to be a blood bath, and the back of the DVD promises as much: "As sparks begin to fly between [Penn, Nolte and Harrelson's] characters, they set off a powder keg of emotions so explosive that the actors themselves are drawn into the fray," the blurb froths.

In fact, there's a lot of camaraderie and good humour between all those involved and not a genuinely cross word in sight (at least none that made it onto the DVD). At the outset we're thrown in, three weeks into rehearsal and three weeks before opening night, with Penn and Nolte tearing up the stage as the two combative brothers at the heart of the play. We then flash back to the first tentative read-throughs with the whole cast finding their way into the work and their characters. The documentary continues in this rather scattered (and unhelpful) approach, jumbling footage of the actors rehearsing, joking around and screwing up, with ad-hoc conversations on everything from fatherhood to cooking. The key themes of the play – a typically Shepardesque tale of drunken fathers and battling brothers – are explored through a direct interview with Shepard where he explains his relationship with his father and through interviews with the cast where they share their own experiences of family, death and theatre. In one of these Penn tellingly sums up the play's theme as being "...the plight of being a man when being a man doesn't have any definition."

It's fun to watch these big stars of the screen hanging out, poking fun at each other ("You may have got away with that shit in 'White Men Can't Jump' but this is theatre," Penn tells Harrelson when the latter forgets a line; "I really thought your performance in 'Shanghai Surprise' was underrated," Harrelson snaps back.) It's also a thrill to see these Hollywood movie stars freed from the restrictions of the cinematic mode and turned loose on stage with the pithy gobbets of Shepard's dialogue to hurl at each other, Nolte, Gammon and Penn assume the status of titans; sweating, drunken, bellowing creatures writhing and brawling under the spotlights and generally setting the stage alight. The degree of rapport between Nolte and Penn is particularly powerful in the live setting.

However, unlike, say Louis Malle's 'Vanya on 42nd Street' we don't get to see the finished product in its entirety, and the DVD as a whole suffers from this. We get a lot of off-hand comments, a lot of fly-on-the-wall reportage and interesting tidbits, but without seeing the finished performance, it’s hard to really judge all of it. Are the actor’s conversations and various ‘processes’ a genuinely committed ‘working through’ of issues relating to the play or just typically self-indulgent thespian grandstanding? Is Shepard’s reviewing of his relationship with his father a genuine attempt (after many similar plays) to finally get to grips with the old guy once and for all, or indicative of a breathtaking degree of self-obsession? In both cases, Almereyda clearly thinks the former. Admittedly, the DVD doesn't claim to be anything other than a look at the rehearsal process for the play, not the play itself, but given how exciting much of the footage is, it's impossible not to feel let down. The film-makers also have an irritating habit of dropping in text cards that often don't bear much relation to the action, an affectation that feels forced and unnecessary.

‘This So-Called Disaster’ seems to have been shot on DV and mostly takes place in the dark of the theatre. Given these factors, it looks about as good as you’d expect.

Sometimes rough, but overall actually very good, considering this is a low-budget production. Also there's some wonderful music playing over the DVD menu.

While there's some interesting stuff in 'This So-Called Disaster', the lack of a complete performance, and dearth of special features, means the disk doesn't rise much above being a curiosity, a shame as the actors seem to have made it an extremely compelling presentation. One for the Shepard, or indeed Nolte and Penn, fans only.

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