When the plays of Sam Shepard began appearing in the Sixties at underground theaters like La Mama or the Caffe Cino he was often thought to be a surrealist dramatist. That’s true enough of much of his atmospheric detail, early or late: Angel City and its phantasmal green slime, Operation Sidewinder and its serpentine computer. At the start of Suicide in Bb we discover, to quote from Shepard, that “the outline of a man’s body sprawled out in an awkward position of death is painted in white” on the center of a darkened stage. And it’s true that a dreamlike mise en scène inhabits most of his forty or so plays.
More likely, though, the boisterously prolific Shepard should be seen as an embattled realist, or an elusive one, with a highly picaresque view of the world, and a roguish sense of himself and of his characters in relation to that world. A number of these characters, whether buried in the “middle of nowhere” or ravaging among the graffiti of the metropolis, dote on the tall tale, are fascinated by the foxiness of old pretenders. Others are a kind of holy fool, drifters who are also questers, outlaws who are also poets. Even the most matter-of-fact are prey to orneriness. Mom, in True West (1980), in the Los Angeles of today, blithely informs her sons: “Picasso’s in town. Isn’t that incredible?… No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum. I read it on the bus. We have to go down there and see him.” Eventually in the unraveling of the tall tale calamity lurks, the horizon is electric with disaster, while for the holy fools paranoia is always possible, suitably guyed with touches of Shepard’s humorous hyperbole: A funny thing happened to me on the way to Armageddon, as one of his characters might say.
Shepard’s world, however idiosyncratic, is of course America. It is at once a “youth culture” America, full of hot rods and juke boxes, rap sessions and brand names (some of the characters are irreverently called Kent or Salem or Dodge), and a world always colored by the evocation of an American past—a highly selective one. For Shepard’s is largely the America of Buffalo Bill and Andrew Jackson, but surely not that of Henry Adams or Henry James; the America of medicine shows and covered wagons, revivalist meetings and rodeos, but hardly of Debs or Sacco and Vanzetti or even of the robber barons of Wall Street. In short, a thoroughly demotic, folkloric America, the American past more or less as a Hollywood cliché—but an America, nonetheless, continually illuminated through the purview of the artist, the artist as tramp or seer.
If one is content to follow this hard-nosed, drug-induced, pop-flavored style, this perpetual retuning of old genres and old myths, one encounters, finally, a profuse and unique panorama of where we are now and where we have been. Because Shepard has written so much, because frequently his plays seem provisional reports whose vitality springs perhaps from a certain disgust with writing plays at all—Shepard likes to say that he took to writing so as “not to go off the deep end,” that all along his real desire was to be a “rock-and-roll star”—it’s extraordinarily difficult to write categorically about what goes on in his theater. But surely at the center of Shepard’s America must stand his antipodean band of errant sons and ghostly fathers—his assortment of gangsters and gamblers, cowboys and farmers—variants either on the “child of nature” and “noble savage” or on the authority figure of the “old man,” an abiding presence, home from the hills and now gone a bit daft. Shepard’s women, themselves variants on mothers and whores, sisters or sweethearts, are, not surprisingly, dim in comparison to his macho pantheon, but they too have their moments.
Around these characters flourish the heady themes of the plays. In them, boyish adventures are both ardent and a disappointment, savaged usually with the threnody of despair. A fortune hunt in the harlequinade of Mad Dog Blues (1971) reveals nothing but two bags full of “millions of bottle caps.” Memories of uropias rise and fall and leave not a trace behind: “What’s a community?” Jeep, a disillusioned counterculturist, asks mockingly in Action (1975).
Much in Shepard is “invisible.” Mice are everywhere in 4-H Club (1965), but not one, apparently, is seen. Much is also “imaginary,” particularly death, a recurrent motif. Bullets fly across the stage in The Unseen Hand (1969), but the actors, like the ogres of video games, are invulnerable to them. Carol, in Red Cross (1966), speaks eloquently, once, of her own death at the bottom of a ski slope. Language in the same play can be lethal, a trap for the unwary: a maid “drowns” while inattentively listening to instructions on how to swim. Or, conversely, language can be a means of staving off suffocation. “You gotta talk or you’ll die,” murmurs Tilden, the possessor of a terrible and barely discernible family secret in Buried Child (1978). Throughout, the grotesque vies with the perfunctory, the humdrum with the fabulous, panic is edged with a kind of cracker-barrel whimsy, and extraordinary behavior is de rigueur. In Curse of the Starving Class (1978), Wesley unzips his fly, takes out his pecker, and pees all over his sister’s culinary demonstration charts lying at his feet.
Older dramatists, like Williams and Miller, had roots in a traditional literature, and their plays could suggest associations with the American theater or American fiction of the Twenties and Thirties. Albee, for all his postwar consciousness, can be similarly placed, even if he has roots in Salinger or Beckett (read “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” for the genesis of The Zoo Story’s conversational style, Malone Dies for the nucleus of Martha’s hymn to her “son” in Virginia Woolf).
Only in Sam Shepard do we find in a playwright of equal importance a consequential break with the niceties of a literary past, and the triumph of a dramatic style largely of improvisation, one related more and more to popular culture. Literary influences certainly exist, primarily those of Whitman and Kerouac, but these are less verbal than visual—Walt on the open road, Jack and Neal Cassady in their old jalopy—are part of the iconography of what Shepard calls the “car culture for the young.” More important, these influences are always subject to greater ones: from music (rock and jazz), from art (Pollock or “happenings”), and above all from Hollywood and TV.
It’s hardly surprising that in Shepard’s Motel Chronicles (1982), a series of impressionistic reminiscences in verse and prose, one comes across “I keep praying / for a double bill / of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK / and / VERA CRUZ“—meaning a double bill of the films of the Fifties he’d seen in his adolescence. He seems to want, in fact, a double bill of the patriarchal and “buddy culture” aspects of these (and other) films—silverhaired Tracy saving the day at Black Rock, Cooper and Lancaster roughing things up at Vera Cruz—that have been so keenly enlivening his own folkloric landscapes. And if in his world a “new god” is sought, or a moment of “great expectation,” the new god turns out to be, not unexpectedly, “a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth”—which, alas, sounds more like a description of Ronald Reagan, minus the rock-and-roll, than any invocation of a deity, new or old.
Much has been said of the deftness of Shepard’s ear, his mastery of “living speech.” The isolated monologues of his characters, those brilliant, scarifying arias for which he’s justly famous, are in many cases the equivalent of the prose poem. One could make a little anthology of the best of these speeches and they would represent a good deal of what is most pertinent or piquant in his work. For these long monologues, when at full tilt, include the thematic hints of what’s to come or heighten what’s already been; they either point to an approaching storm or leave an eerie afterglow; contain, that is, both the emotional definition of the characters speaking and the design embodying these characters.
To take an elementary example, Stu, in Cowboy #2 (1967), in an aria on peacocks and turtles and chickens in chicken coops, turns from the beauty of the peacocks to the awfulness of chickens expiring in “a pool of shit and piss and feathers and cluck”; then Chet, his buddy, starts another aria on breakfast cereals. Later, in a duet, they’ll play at and “become” old men, old prospectors, fighting off imaginary Injuns on imaginary plains—and the underlying themes of guilelessness and death, youth and age, will subsequently evolve.
Yet these characters are rarely separable or memorable; they have none of the distinctiveness, the embroidery of portraiture of Blanche DuBois or Willy Loman. Not only do Stu and Chet frequently mimic each other or exchange identities with each other, but so also do Kosmo and Yahoodi in Mad Dog Blues, and Lee and Austin in True West; even in the incestuous coupling of Fool for Love (1983), May and Eddie, half-sister and half-brother, are virtually opposite sides of the same coin. These characters, as Elizabeth Hardwick has observed, are not so much characters as actors, members of some sort of revolving repertory company where the impresario is of course Shepard himself, Shepard exuberantly amplifying the possibilities of his own picaresque imagination or poetic roguery, Shepard delighting in the fact that the playwright is, as he says, “the only actor who gets to play all the roles.”
In so celebrating the histrionic dexterity of the actor, Shepard is also insisting that we watch as well as listen, use our eyes no less than our ears. In his theater we encounter precipitate alterations of personality, or chimerical shifts in diction or mood or dress (disrobing or a bedraggled sumptuousness are common), and frequently accompanying the long monologues or interwoven among them, another character, on another part of the stage, might suddenly begin shadow boxing, or howl like a coyote, or slowly dance to a blues ballad, or sit in a heavy red armchair and maneuver it till it comes to resemble a “giant tortoise.”
Admittedly, at times all this activity can be little more than an avant-garde burlesque of the “stage business” of yesteryear. At other times overall movement clearly falters: Shepard either runs out of gas (the second half of Angel City is surely a letdown after the first) or has trouble getting started. But generally such choreography engages us as swiftly or effortlessly as possible; and even when the characters are seemingly doing nothing at all, lying about as if “dead,” these moments are purely deceptive—at key points in the concluding sequences of Melodrama Play (1967) each of the “dead” will rise from the floor and exit, and the effect is startling.
A feeling for sound, a feeling for movement—these by themselves, however, might eventually pall, seem marginal or merely opaque. What’s necessary, finally, is an energizing perspective, an element beyond the purely dramaturgical, a feeling for space. Here Shepard makes his larger, more personal and metaphorical claims, here his portrait of America, past and present, assumes consciousness, makes itself known. For whether one is watching a farmhouse, an office, a motel room, or a hideaway resort, whether a signal property on stage be a stuffed bird (Cowboy Mouth), a lasso (Fool for Love), or a blinking Christmas tree (Action), behind everything, incorporating everything, is Shepard’s irrepressible sense of nomadic drift. He keeps propelling his characters from one circumstance to another, and out of this grows the general convulsiveness, the peculiar pathos encompassing the “buddy culture” and patriarchal components of his disparate texts.
First, then, the hoopla and zeal of the trail, paths open, forever beckoning toward more distant, more challenging vistas; later, inevitably, the solace and consolation of the hearth. Yet with Shepard neither the trail nor the hearth is ever completely satisfying in itself, though neither is possible without the other. Each, rather, is a part of an indefinable whole, the “whole” itself being similar to Shepard’s definition of human behavior: “a fractured whole with bits of character flying off a central theme.” If the family, either in union or disunion, is the emotional focal point of his world, then the central theme or symbol, the fabula of his theater, has to be that of the frontier.
Of course every part of America was once a frontier. Turner’s diagram of the successive wave-after-wave peopling of the West is famous—the deerslayer to trek the unknown, the emigrants to settle and work it, the men of capital to market and control it, and once again Babylon arises in our midst, and once more the impulse to move still further on, to struggle toward yet another El Dorado mercilessly takes hold. This diagram (or its Hollywood version) is surely always buried deep somewhere in Shepard’s imagination. “To not be fixed,” he remarked in an interview, is his creed. “There’s an incredible sense of dissatisfaction,” he added, “when there is no danger.” Danger, however, like violence has always been double-edged in American history. If a desire for a life free of the restrictions of civilization meant glorying in the wonders of a rugged individualism, it also meant a life in the wilderness full of conflict and mayhem. On the other hand, if the family shelters, the family also isolates and confines. And if rootedness allows for growth, rootedness also provokes restlessness. Quandaries develop. Irresistibly in Shepard, words like “compete” and “justification” come to the fore.
So one grows tired of one’s travels—the position of Jeep in Action. And he asks his buddy, Shooter, to establish yet again one more reason for them to get up and go. “Some justification,” he demands, “for me to find myself someplace else.” Or, more drastically, one grows tired of being top dog, yet one cannot retire gracefully from the “game,” one has to defend one’s “rep”—the dilemma of Hoss in The Tooth of Crime (1972). “I wanna be a fuck off again,” Hoss says. “I don’t wanna compete no more.” And immediately we know that his doom is sealed because fresher blood is already coming in off the trail to seek him out.
The Tooth of Crime, undoubtedly the quintessential Shepard play, is a dazzlingly corrosive work and one of the most original achievements in contemporary theater. It is also the play that best illustrates the various facets—at once highly eclectic and highly singular—of his genius. Though ostensibly a futuristic exposé, with sci-fi trimmings, of the sleaze of the recording industry—it was written in London after Shepard’s meetings with members of the Who and the Stones—it is basically a rock fantasia on the new gun in town. Shepard’s most bravura touches are here—woozy epithets, internal rhyme, musical syncopation, cockalorum and caricature, a knife thrower’s dummy that spills real blood, as well as Shepard’s prevailing belief that “language is a veil holding demons and angels which the other characters are always out of touch with.” All these, despite some exasperating lapses, rise to a level of perfection that Shepard, I believe, has not matched since.
In The Tooth of Crime Hoss, a celebrated musician at the top of the charts, has an intemperate rival in the deadly Crow, a younger and sassier musician edging his way toward his place in the sun. Each is presented as a “killer,” but each is also an “image maker” or a “marker.” Neither can exist in union. “I’m a solo, man,” Crow quips. “So are you…who’d be the leader?” Between them, as so often happens in Shepard, gunplay must become wordplay, the battle of the egos, who’s got the muscle, whose self is the “real” self, being first and foremost a battle of “style.” For Shepard, identity is bound up with one’s style, and in his world both are fluid, and each necessarily comments on the other. The language of The Tooth of Crime is of course the language of the western, its argot, but only as a computer programmer or a devotee of Billboard or Cashbox might use it or fancy it. Here is Hoss encountering Crow for the first time, taking his measure, determined to daunt him with a demonstration of his own spiel, which Crow, got up to look like Keith Richard and exuding a “violent arrogance,” will, since he plays harder ball, toss right back.
HOSS: I musta’ misfed my data somehow. I thought you were raw, unschooled. Ya’ know? I mean, maybe the training’s changed since my time. Look, I wanna just sound you for a while before we get down to the cut. O.K.? You don’t know how lonely it’s been. I can talk to Cheyenne but we mostly reminisce on old kills. Ya’ know. I don’t get new information. I’m starving for new food. Ya’ know? That don’t mean I won’t be game to mark you when the time comes. I don’t sleep standin’ up. Ya’ know? what I mean? It’s just that I wanna find out what’s going on. None of us knows. I’m surrounded by boobs who’re still playin’ in the sixties. That’s where I figured you were. Earlier. I figured you for Beach Boys in fact.
In this play—and in the best of the other plays written shortly after: Suicide in Bb, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and, especially, Seduced—Shepard is examining, not so much in political or economic parallels as in those of domination and submission, the nature of power in America. Or, more precisely, the duplicitous nature of “success” and “failure,” where it’s implied that a failure of nerve and not that of a “life” is at the basis of both. For when a rattled Hoss, under pressure to advance even higher on the charts, to score yet another song hit or “kill,” pauses to wonder, “Ain’t there any farmers left, ranchers, cowboys, open space? Nobody just livin’ their life,” Becky, his girl, tells him: “That’s old time boogie. The only way to be an individual is in the game.” Hoss knows that in the world of the “game,” where “there’s a new star every week,” he’s not free, he’s existing on borrowed time, stuck in an “image,” “stuck in a mansion,” awaiting his doppelgänger, another explosive kid “who’s probably just like me. Just like I was then. A young blood…. I gotta roll him or he’ll roll me.”
The intricacy of the play—its multiple “codes” and “rules,” approaching at times incoherence—can only be hinted at. In structure, however, The Tooth of Crime mirrors the strict pattern of crisis and catastrophe found in Shepard’s earlier (and equally incantatory) La Turista (1967). The first act focuses on Hoss, caught up among his minions in all the cliché paraphernalia of being a “star,” a “king,” a “fucking industry.” Hoss randomly meditates on his fame and his past, on his high school days or on his fear of “losin’ direction.” The act concludes fittingly in a soliloquy of “shifting voices,” through which Hoss speaks both in his own voice and in that of his dead father, “old fishin’ buddy,” who advises, as always: “The road’s what counts. Just look at the road. Don’t worry about where it’s goin’.”
In the second and final act we arrive at the prolonged confrontation scene, Hoss and Crow in their virtuoso jousting match, a truly daring example of the interpolative velocity of Shepard’s art. Against a suitably mercantile background of rock-and-roll and country-western, a skeletal set emphasizing Hoss’s disputed Pharaonical “black throne,” and amid all the absurdly terroristic jargon—“master” and “slave,” “true” and “false”—of a Vegas casino, or a suggestion of same, Hoss and Crow will attempt to outperform or overcome each other, to symbolically attain or retain legendary frontier status. Yet however extravagantly drawn, neither is autonomous. And that is Shepard’s point. Each is merely a combinative “pawn” in a “game,” and the only way for either to win at the game is to keep reinventing the self, which means to keep proliferating one’s “image,” the “gypsy” or fatherless Crow being, in this respect,particularly factitious:
HOSS: I just hope you never see yourself from the outside. Just a flash of what you’re really like. A pitiful flash….
CROW: No chance, Leathers. The image is my survival kit.
The only way, in a counterfeit world, to win even if one loses, a world where they hierarchically “re-program the tapes,” is ultimately to forfeit the one genuine article left—“losin’ big” on a colossal scale. “A true gesture,” as Hoss, the less dehumanized of the two, will explain, “that won’t never cheat on itself ’cause it’s the last of its kind. It can’t be taught or copied or stolen or sold. It’s mine. An original.” At the end of the play, Hoss, bowing to the implacable style out of which he’s sprung, will fire a bullet into his mouth and disappear in “one clean shot.” Crow will indolently remark: “I gotta hand it to ya’. It took ya’ long enough but you slid right home.” The wheel of fashion will spin another turn, and Crow will have to await his own Crow, for the next shoot-out, the next “image” to supersede his own.
For Shepard, this is what the trail (or the “crime”) has become: constant flux, which of course is its only permanence, a continual “rollin’ down.” “Keep me in my state a’ grace,” as Crow ironically prays in his victory song, which is also a funereal one, “Just keep me rollin’ down.” Here not even Hemingway’s idea that “man is not made for defeat,” that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated” is applicable. For inverting the Hemingway formula, Hoss is both defeated (by Crow) and destroyed (by himself).
The virulence of this nihilism is later compounded in the devastating portrait of the megalomaniacal billionaire, Henry Hackamore, the character supposedly modeled after Howard Hughes, in Seduced. Hackamore is kept alive through periodic injections of “genius blood,” and exclaims: “I’m the demon they invented! Everything they ever aspired to. The nightmare of the nation! It’s me…Only me!”
Such nihilism Shepard could only back away from. When he found his bearings again, it was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in the four plays, generally referred to as his “family plays,” where he turned from the game to the trap, from the trail back to the hearth, from warfare in a “buddy culture” to warfare among kith and kin. In these plays, Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child, True West and Fool for Love, Shepard’s old rambunctiousness, the tall tale and holy fool are still around, but chastened; the effect of all four is more or less like that of an elegiac vaudeville, which is true even of the knockabout sensual avidity of Fool for Love. Yet despite the engaging domestic detail or the mundane subject matter (sibling rivalry, financial plight, sexual infidelity), the sense of drift, of dispossession or disorientation, is paramount here as well.
In Curse of the Starving Class, Weston, desperate farmer, World War II vet, bumbling father, has trouble piecing together the patches of a bruised life, trouble, that is, grasping the point of the “whole.” “The jumps,” he says, “I couldn’t figure out the jumps. From being born, to growing up, to droppin’ bombs, to having kids, to hittin’ bars, to this…. I kept looking for it out there somewhere. And all the time it was right inside this house…that’s why you need a hard table once in a while…a good hard table to bring you back to life.” Yet pitted against the tactile reality of Weston’s past is always the slippery reality of the present: the “zombies” of Babylon at work once again. “Banks, car lots, investors,” he muses. “The whole thing’s geared to invisible money. You never hear the sound of change anymore. It’s all plastic shuffling back and forth. It’s all in everybody’s heads.”
In Buried Child, the title itself more than an echo of the thralldom of genealogy permeating the play, Vince, another of Shepard’s irascible young drifters, who could just as easily be Weston’s son Wesley, has an atavistic vision of himself in the windshield of his car, on a furious all-night drive “clear to the Iowa border.” As he studies his face in the glare of the windshield under a pelting rain, what he sees is not his own face but the face of a mummy, and beneath that the face of his father, and beneath that the face of his grandfather. Still here again pitted against Vince’s atavistic vision lies a deeper one of genealogical dread and disgust. “You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring?” Vince’s grandfather asks Vince’s girl, Shelly. “You never seen a bitch eat her puppies? Where are you from anyway?” And of course the “buried child” of the play’s title is, in fact, a murdered child; the result, within the family, of some “unspeakable” or mysterious union between Tilden, Vince’s father, and Tilden’s mother.
The ineluctable pull toward “home,” the last stop on the journey from which all journeys, began; the nostalgia for a bloody denouement, as innocent as it is corrupt, for “one clean shot”; the perennial opposition of trail and hearth; above all, the kaleidoscopic vastness of America, a country growing more and more controlled and at the same time—as in the past so in the present—in danger of going completely out of control: these, now darkly etched, now lightly, now in a naturalist style, now an absurdist one, again and again define Shepard’s world. But a question arises. Why has Shepard, so clearly a success for almost twenty years now, been so restlessly drawn to such paradoxes?
Shepard’s father, an NCO, kept the family (Shepard, his mother, his two sisters) continually on the move from one army base to another; settling finally, during Shepard’s adolescence, at a scrabbly avocado ranch in Duarte, California. The father, evidently a rover and an alcoholic, was fatally hit by a truck a year or so ago in Santa Fe, an accident that, as Shepard acknowledged in an interview in American Film, had more than likely been willed. This father, no matter how strong the disavowal of the auto-biographical, surely connects with the protean figure of the “old man” of the plays. Shepard himself could be any of his young men, either the son searching for the lost father (“My heart was pounding,” we hear Wesley say, recalling the “avocado blossoms” of his youth, “just from my dad coming back”), or, more deeply, given the Whitmanesque aura of Shepard’s “buddy culture,” the son searching for the brother he never had or, as in True West, the son in an ambiguous relationship with the brother he has.
In Motel Chronicles, where Shepard, for once, speaks directly about himself, we find, through the book’s telegraphic scattered mementos, some warranty for the above: in glimpses of Shepard’s mother carrying her child “in a brown Army blanket,” the two pausing on a prairie in the Badlands, “at a place with huge white plaster dinosaurs” standing in a circle, the “lights shining up at them from the ground” (this and accompanying images are incorporated in the screenplay Shepard recently wrote for Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas); in glimpses of Shepard the teen-age dropout, stealing cars and IDs, working as actor or busboy.
Most telling of all are assorted glimpses of Shepard’s “dad,” particularly the scene where he pays his father a visit not too long before his death. The father is estranged from his wife and family, an anchorite in the “New Mexican dust,” with his “prize” of an “original Al Jolson 78,” his “collage” of “wall-to-wall magazine clippings…splattered with bacon grease,” including one snap of “B-52 Bombers in Wing Formation.” (Shepard’s father participated in aerial missions over Italy, and it’s amusing, or perhaps not so amusing, that his son, who grew up with a fear of flying, would later rise to Hollywood celebrity through portraying Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.) Shepard concludes his little litany with two clinching paragraphs:
He spent all the food money I’d gave him on Bourbon. Filled the ice box with bottles. Had his hair cut short like a World War II fighter pilot. He gleamed every time he ran his hand across the bristles. Said they used to cut it short like that so their helmets would fit. Showed me how the shrapnel scars still showed on the nape of his neck.
My Dad lives alone on the desert. He says he doesn’t fit in with people.
Neither, as it turns out, does Travis, in Paris, Texas, a middle-aged drifter who has abandoned wife and child and has inexplicably spent four years wandering the “far distances” of Texas and Mexico, and now just as inexplicably reappears. Travis is surely the most impenetrable of all of Shepard’s characters. In the same way that Shepard refuses to “interpret” his father, so it is with Travis. Nevertheless, the connection between them is obvious, Indeed, Harry Dean Stanton, the actor chosen to play Travis, bears, to judge by the photos in Motel Chronicles, an uncanny resemblance to Shepard’s father.
Here too, Shepard’s El Dorado motif crops up yet again, for it is Travis’s “calculation” that he had been “conceived” in the now forsaken eponymous town of Paris, when his parents had been in the throes of an idyllic love, later in married life to grow paranoid and thwarted, paralleling the fate of Travis in his own married life. His peregrinations, then, are his baffled means of recovering his origins or of reclaiming a presumably sanctified place. However, in this unFreudian film, the diagnostic possibility of so curious a fancy is, typically, left undeveloped or unexplored.
Wim Wenders is the most American of the young directors of the “New German Cinema.” Not only have Ford’s The Searchers, Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, or Nicolas Ray’s They Live By Night (probably the earliest sustained example of what we today call the “road movie”) been models throughout his career, but even most of the “foreign” influences are, one might say, essentially American as well: Lang and Hitchcock, transplants in Hollywood from Germany or England. All of Wenders’s best films deal with patterns of emotional dislocation set against an arresting geographical idiom. The characters, generally two young men, suffering crises of memory or of identity, keep moving from city to city, are always in flight (in the spectacular tracking shot at the Paris metro in The American Friend, Jonathan runs off from the scene of his crime, the video monitors reduplicating his checkered progress). Or at the end of a film, one may hope to complete in the future what one had sought to do at the beginning, and so the cycle resumes. Wenders shares a natural artistic affinity with Shepard and much from their association was to be expected.
Yet though Paris, Texas is the most interesting American film I’ve seen all year, it is finally not a success. The photography of Robby Müller, surpassing anything he and Wenders have previously done together, is exquisitely attuned to the film’s tonal and visual rhythms, as is, for the most part, Shepard’s dialogue, generally minimalist for the occasion. The trouble, however, lies with the tale: Travis unexpectedly surfaces out of nowhere, then magically brings together Jane, the lost wife, who’s spent the last four years as a call girl at a Houston peep show, and Hunter, the lost son, who’s spent the last four of the eight years of his life in the comfortable Los Angeles home of Travis’s brother and his brother’s wife. This tale, despite an air of verisimilitude, is nevertheless much too improbable or anecdotal to be real.
In perhaps the film’s most striking sequence, we hear the amplified, if muffled, voice of a man, as we also watch Travis morosely traversing a windy overpass. The voice is apparently that of someone haranguing a crowd, or a political orator, but we discover, at the end of Travis’s promenade, that it belongs to a derelict, a “crazy,” shouting his malefic message to the air or to the indifferent roar of the traffic below. Travis pauses to pat the distraught fellow on the back, as if in complicity with the man’s plight, then ambles on. It’s a memorable moment, another of Shepard’s apocalyptic tremors, but it does not open up the film. It merely encloses it further. Often the film might be the dream of Travis (particularly in view of Stanton’s shuffling, somnambulist portrayal), Travis hallucinating the events of the film, or, more exactly, fabulating them, since the easy camaraderie later evinced between Travis and Hunter (or Shepard and his father) is surely more on the order of wish fulfillment than anything else.
Wenders, in an article in Le Monde, has suggested that he and Shepard had a larger dimension in mind, a distinctly Homeric one. But to imagine Travis as Ulysses, Jane as Penelope, Hunter as Telemachus—how, under the circumtances, would that be possible except in an ironic sense? With Jane’s Penelope being the most ironic, or comic, of all: faithful Penelope reduced to a kind of Circe and her importunate suitors to a collection of anonymous clients popping in off the streets of Houston for a cheap thrill. That Wenders and Shepard were obviously unaware of what fragile ground they treaded is confirmed, I believe, in the long and spiritless double monologue concluding the film. Here the idea of Travis as Ulysses, another wanderer and teller of tall tales, might have worked if Shepard had something to deliver. Alas, he has not. Nothing either Travis or Jane has to say is truly revelatory of their troublesome past; it is merely a faux-naif jumble about guilt and redemption, freedom and trust, the film evaporating finally in a folkloric mist, oddly reminiscent of Enoch Arden, mother and son, Jane and Hunter, reunited, and the noble and sacrifical Travis, his good deed accomplished, once more going off into the “far distances.”
If we look back over the expanse of Shepard’s work—the trash of human loneliness or human aggression, a feeling for “images that shine,” as he says, “in the middle of junk” (the billboard culture of America serving him here) or for things that time and again are “blown away”—we can see in the jocose desolation or stoical amiability, in the interplay of ego and environment the unstinting vigor and originality of his vision. But also its limitations. Americans—that is, Americans en masse—have always celebrated their own ignorance. “The best place to hide something,” Vachel Lindsay once wryly observed of the habits of his countrymen, “is in a book.” And there’s no doubt that Shepard, with his tall tales and holy fools, celebrates that national trait.
Superficially his general indictment of American materialism is similar to James’s “interrogation of the past” as he gazes upon the industrial gloom of the New Jersey shore in The American Scene. But what a difference between Shepard and his lust for the old primordial thrill and the expatriate James and his manifold displacements, his “international theme” of “dispossessed princes and wandering heirs.” Though one can find in Shepard any number of spiritual or ceremonial transformations (the mantic strain, the use of paradox and parable, being, I think, as present as the manic), one would be hard put to discover much in the way of cultural or intellectual emancipation. “Myth,” as he puts it, “is a powerful medium,” precisely “because it talks to the emotions and not the head.”
Thus, again and again, what unites his heroes is the division of the spoils, the affirmation through negation: Jeep speaks of Whitman as “a passionate father bleeding for his country.” Weston speaks of the family as “an animal thing.” Hoss says of himself, “I couldn’t take my life in my hands while I was alive but now I can take it in death.” May tells Eddie that “anybody who doesn’t half kill themselves falling off horses or jumping on steers” isn’t a real “male” in his eyes. It’s all vital and genuine, and wonderfully moving and sinister in an aboriginal way, and yet for all that a kind of shuck, a “game.”
Of course, as we have seen, Shepard knows very well that it’s a game, just as Hoss knows. “Genius,” Hoss says, “is something outside the game. The game can’t contain a true genius. It’s too small.” Shepard enlarges and elaborates upon what he knows, and damns, repeatedly, the computerized and depersonalized world that has arisen from the old patriarchy, the old macho assurances. Still, deep down, his heart goes out to them, he remains in fealty to them, unwilling as he is to demystify or to confront these old myths and their dubious hold upon us or upon himself. Thus the splendor of his tapestries. Thus, too, the laceration of consciousness—“split,” one of his favorite words—as we move from a raw and evergreen youthfulness traveling the “territory,” constantly upping the ante, to the abrupt disgruntlement or dilapidation of age, and with very little else in between. Then comes the final severance, the final recoil, till one is left a ruminating shadow, as Shepard’s father is left (or Cooper’s Natty Bumppo at the end of The Pioneers), no longer able to “fit with people.”
Shepard arrived on the scene at two crucial, if ephemeral, moments in recent American history, each of them bearing heavily upon his own development: during the late Fifties and early Sixties, the salutary aspects of mass culture drawn from such sources as rhythm and blues unexpectedly irradiated high culture, saving it from the academic solemnity or bourgeois conformity that had been stifling it; and the equally radical metamorphosis of the family (or the escape from the family) into a “generation of youth,” what one used to call the “new sensibility” of the Sixties. These upheavals, of course, did not last, precisely because they had no real intellectual underpinnings to nourish or guide them; with the result that mass culture, with its assemblage of technocrats, taste makers, and “target audiences,” is today far more of a corporate monolith than it’s ever been.
From the Seventies to the present, we have been witnessing, with only rarest of exceptions, and with much lap-dog palaver suggesting the contrary, an unprecedented acceleration of the banal or the bogusly sophisticated in American life and in popular culture—in the megabucks infantilism of the astral sagas of Lucas and Spielberg, in the cornball uplift of On Golden Pond, in Yahoo types like Indiana Jones, in the show-biz promotion of American fundamentalism and American politics (the evangelical President Reagan, when not chopping wood or pumping iron, deals in tall tales as if they were facts and figures; he calls his tall tales “anecdotes”), and, finally, in the emergence of a new generation of youth, dumber or shallower, perhaps, than any other generation of youth within memory. Adversary culture, traditionally the air hole of mainstream culture, is no longer a force; the heterogeneity of mass culture, such as it is, is dependent on what’s left of the old liberation movements of the Sixties, on feminists, blacks, gays, or on the legacy of rock, as in the current “phenomena” of Harvey Fierstein, Eddie Murphy, or Prince.
Sam Shepard, only a few years out of his thirties, seems at a difficult point of an extraordinary career. Clearly he has been the dominant American playwright of his generation. And he has been more than that, for without him it is by no means certain that the contemporary American theater would have much of importance to speak of, the best of his colleagues, Lanford Wilson, David Mamet, or David Rabe, being in no sense his equals. He has already created a body of work distinctive enough for a lifetime. One may hope that he will not, like Travis at the end of Paris, Texas, disappear into more of the folklore of the “far distances,” a folklore that has now become as emotionally threadbare as it is ideologically synthetic.
May 9, 1985