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In 1961, famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a psychology experiment in which people think they're delivering electric shocks to an affable stranger strapped into a chair in another room.
After the American playwright and actor Sam Shepard had played the role of the ghost in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, Shepard invited the filmmaker to document rehearsals for his The Late Henry Moss, that he staged with Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in leading roles. Almereyda and his crew filmed the last three weeks before the première. The film combines interviews with Shepard, his actors and staff with images of the rehearsals. The result is both a portrait and a unique glimpse of top actors seeking their way through the material. The film also offers a survey of the career of Shepard, including a report of his stormy relationship with his father, who died in 1984. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
"This So-Called Disaster" (the on-screen credits had an additional, secondary title that I can't find documented on line) is a fascinating look at the rehearsal process, particularly between actors and a director.
It would make a terrific double feature with Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard" because here we have the additional angle that the playwright is very much alive -- Sam Shepherd-- and he actively cuts lines based on what the actors can embody without words.
He trusts these actors because they include Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and James Gammon, who has channeled Shepherd's alcoholic father in other plays before finally expiating his Eugene O'Neill-like obsession in this play, "The Late Henry Moss," as produced in 2000 at San Francisco's Magic Theater.
The fly-on-the-wall camera work is supplemented by Shepherd's first-time willingness to discuss the autobiographical elements of his work, with details on his family, including photographs and film, and some informal discussion by and formal interviews with the actors. (We also see him not providing the same information to a very nervous AP reporter.)
Documentarian Michael Almereyda has captured an important element in Shepherd's and these particular actors work: their roaring masculinity and how they have and are continuing to struggle with the themes of the play in their art and in their lives, how to be sons, brothers, and fathers.
Working on this play is forcing all these sexy, combative guys to come to grips with mortality and family, even though the play itself doesn't seem particularly effective at expiating that for the audience. For example, we get a languid yet intense Penn protesting that the heavy rehearsal schedule has to allow time out for him to take his kids trick-or-treating, as clearly this play has heightened all of their consciousness about parental responsibilities. I now would certainly like to see Russell Crowe take on a Shepherd play.
T-Bone Burnett is also interviewed about the background music he put together for the production.
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