“This So-Called Disaster,” a portrait of Sam Shepard and the rehearsals for his play “The Late Henry Moss” (which Shepard also directed) in San Francisco in late 2000, is anything but. Not as insightful as “Topsy-Turvy” or “Vanya on 42nd Street” about the process of putting on a show, it’s nonetheless a fascinating meeting of the minds — between iconic New York indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda and laconic American cowboy and dramatist Shepard. A natural for arts-oriented tube outlets, the added marquee value of stars Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson (all of whom starred in the “Henry Moss” production) will also ensure a measure of theatrical exposure for this low-key exercise.
Unfolding in a cramped adobe shack in New Mexico, Shepard’s “The Late Henry Moss” tells the story of two long-estranged brothers (Nolte and Penn), reunited by the death of their father (James Gammon). Seasoned with flashbacks, the play is about unhealed wounds that can fester between brothers and between fathers and sons.Inspired by the passing of his own estranged father in 1984, Shepard worked on the autobiographical piece, on and off, over 16 years. Almereyda’s film strives to understand what brought Shepard and his cast to a point where they were prepared to give to “Henry Moss” the intense emotional commitment it demands.
Candid interviews with Nolte, Penn, et al., and a fly-on-the-wall thrill from seeing a theater-piece congeal over a lengthy rehearsal period offer absorbing, voyeuristic glances. And, Almereyda and his camera are highly sensitive to the minutiae of the creative process.
But the play and Almereyda’s filming of it are, in the end, just ways of approaching the enigmatic Shepard. Almereyda finally corners Shepard for a one-on-one, far away from the rehearsal hall, positioning (or, perhaps, allowing Shepard to position himself) in an old wooden rocker on the porch of a cabin, the sound of crickets chirping in the background. Shepard seems at home here, and opens up to Almereyda without losing his taciturn demeanor.
Made virtually simultaneous to “Happy Here and Now,” “This So-Called Disaster” may not be a major film for Almereyda, but it extends the fragmentary style he has been developing. Acknowledging that a full-bodied portrait of Shepard and his oeuvre would be an impossible task for a 90-minute film, Almereyda approaches the film as an abstract sketch — jaggedly alternating shapes and lines that suggest something intangibly complex without trivializing it.