Chapter 1: The First Generation – Experimental
The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895) – Alfred Clark
The horror film is nearly as old as film itself. The first horror film, or at the very least the first gore film is The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895). 1895 was the year of the first public film screening by Auguste and Louis Lumière. The Execution of Mary Stuart was produced by Thomas Edison at his film studio, Black Maria, located on the Edison laboratory complex in West Orange, New Jersey. Black Maria, America’s first film studio, began its life only two years earlier.
The studio’s name was coined by employees W.K. Dickson and Jonathan Campbell, referring to the building’s resemblence to police vans – known colloquially as Black Marias.
The Execution of Mary Stuart was produced primarely to show off the ability of the film edit to change reality. As the executioner raises his blade, the actor (Mary was played by a man) is replaced by a mannequin. On the other side of the edit, the mannequin’s head is cut off in cinema’s first decapitation. The film is only eighteen seconds long.
The House of the Devil (1896) – George Méliés
Many of the early horror films are experimental in nature, and resemble magic shows. George Méliés, one of cinema’s first directors, was a magician by trade. By the age of ten, Méliés was building puppet theaters; by his teens he was creating complicated marionettes.
While he desired to study painting, Méliés was forced by his father to become a supervisor at his family’s shoe factory. While working at the factory, Méliés continued to develop his stage act. By 1885 he was performing on small stages such as Cabinet Fantastique at the Musée Grévin.
He was quite successful at his family’s company and was able to buy the well-known Theatre Robert Houdin in 1888. After the purchase, he left the shoe business to become a full-time stage illusionist.
On December 28, 1895 he was in the audience of the Lumière Brothers first public showing of their Cinématograph. He approached the brothers after the show with an offer to buy their projector. They refused. Less than a year later he built his own.
Filming one autumn day, Méliés accidentally jammed his camera. His mistake would change cinema forever. Watching his footage during processing, objects appeared out of nowhere, and other objects transformed. Méliés was awestruck. Cinema was magic.
The horror and science fiction genres (although it must be said that many of his films were comedic in nature) allowed him to experiment with many new techniques including splices that would allow a character to appear out of nowhere, dissolves, and multiple exposures.
His 1896 film The House of The Devil, ran over three minutes and included many revolutionary effects, most famously a skeleton that turns into a bat, and then into the Devil. The film has very little narrative. It tells a rather simplistic tale of a man who confronts the Devil.
Nevertheless, it has important groundbreaking visual effects. The short was thought to be lost after its debut. Luckily, a print turned up in an archive in New Zealand in 1988.
The Skeleton of Joy (1897) – The Lumière Brothers
This stop-motion short is a precursor to many familiar cartoons ranging from Warner Brothers shorts to Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005). The Skeleton of Joy is a fantastic example of early visual effects – a seemingly full size skeleton dances, falls apart but keeps dancing, then reconstructs itself in the span of thirty five seconds. A simple and joyful short from cinema’s first master directors.
The Black Imp (1905) – George Méliés
The Black Imp is a simple yet effective Méliés film. He scaled back his ambition after his complex hand-colored science fiction film, A Trip to The Moon (1902), and delivered another playful comedy about a man terrorized by the Devil. Méliés, himself, plays a traveler who only wants some sleep. Chairs, a dresser, and the black imp all appear and disappear around the traveler on their own accord.
In the most famous shot, the man climbs atop the chairs and dresser, only for them to disappear, causing him to fall to the ground. Slick edits and a single theatrical framing enhance the feeling that the short is all one take, rather than the many cuts necessary to capture these apparitions. Watching this in 1905 must have seemed like witnessing magic.
The Red Scepter (1907) – Segundo de Chomón
At first blush this short looks to be nothing more than a Méliés knock-off. Nonetheless, The Red Scepter has a of couple neat tricks up its tinted sleeve. de Chomón was a Spanish director who produced most of his films in France. He was discovered by Charles Pathé, whose still extant film studio is the second oldest in the world.
The Red Scepter is yet again centered around the Devil, and constructed like a magic show, with the Devil as the central illusionist. While the costume and set design are very similar to Méliés films, this film has fantastic and original visual effects. People are shrunk down and placed into bottles, a triumph of multiple exposures.
After retiring from directing, de Chomón worked as a visual effects artist, most notably on Abel Gance’s five and a half hour silent epic Napoléon (1927), one of the earliest triptych widescreen films.
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The death of Filmstruck is the latest symptom of our rapidly devolving film culture: This is a look at what we’ve lost, and what lies ahead.
The demise of Filmstruck is a major loss to the world of cinema. If you were to log on to film Twittertm – that specialist ghetto of cinephiles (“or what you’d call film buffs” as Matthew remarks early in the late Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers) you would realize that many of us are in mourning for a rapidly depleting film culture.
Across the country, most Americans do not have access to an art house theater, and it’s even less likely that they would have access to a repertory theater. Those in New York City can pick their poison between the Metrograph and Film Forum and Village Quad Cinema. Heck they’ve even got the NiteHawk in Williamsburg. Those in LA have the New Beverly. Most of us, however, are just plain out of luck.
Two years ago Filmstruck seemed like the solution. A collaboration between Warner Brothers and the Criterion Collection, Filmstruck was a hand-curated outfit that seemed like film school on a Roku. From Rohmer to Ozu, Sembene to Akerman – world cinema was at your fingertips. You want to spend 83 minutes with Alma from Persona? Sure can. You could check in with Guido Anselmi or Sam Spade or Mabel Longhetti or any of several versions of Orpheus by just pressing a button…and now it’s gone.
A Half Remembered Dream Factory
Every day we seem to forget more of our history. Hollywood is no exception. Often they seem to be leading the way. Hollywood has always been America’s dream factory, and there are some real talented and nice people out there – people who care desperately about movies.
Yet, because of the vagaries of corporate America, and the rush to the all-mighty dollar that capitalism surely compels, Hollywood has become a system that is ruled by puffed-up Harvard MBA’s in slick two-button suits looking for ten percent profit on the next remake.
Now, I don’t really have anything against these people, it’s just that many of them don’t really know or give a lick about the classic days of the industry, the history of world cinema, or even current world cinema beyond their own distribution pacts. They only worry whether their new one hundred million dollar piece of content is going to be allowed to play in China, and whether it will allay some its substantial budget with international pre-sales.
In turn, we have the creation of these monster conglomerates through very big mergers such as Disney buying Fox, or in our case AT&T buying Time Warner, which has led directly to AT&T shutting down Filmstruck.
See, they want to invest only in core businesses that will generate substantial return. This makes complete sense from a business perspective. Except, in the olden days of Hollywood the guys that ran the place, like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, saw the picture business as more than just a profit machine. They understood they were creating a product that was intangible – a motion picture, not a widget.
Sure, they were interested in making money, they damn well weren’t commies, but at the same time they were making something near Art and they were passionate about it.
There was a time when it felt like cinema could change the world. In his review of The Dreamers (to circle back), Roger Ebert reminisces that back in ’68, Chicagoans were lined up on the sidewalk in the rain to see Godard’s Weekend. Imagine that now? Wouldn’t happen.
AT&T closed Filmstruck because they believed it was niche. Great cinema like Casablanca and King Kong, The Seven Samurai and Weekend, which all those people lined up for all those years ago, is now just niche content.
What’s the use of going to a movie theater if movies are just content no different from a YouTube video? Hollywood has forgotten its heroes. Cinema seems to have forgotten what cinema is all about – stories that move us or elucidate the world around us – or even sometimes elucidate feelings or emotions so deep-seated they would never stir without that silver-screen mirror.
The last three movies I watched on Filmstruck were the creepy Japanese ghost story Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959), the vibrantly alive magical realist bossa nova-driven romance Black Orpheus (1959), and Mikio Naruse’s masterful Floating Clouds (1955). Maybe my feeling towards Filmstruck and cinema itself is like Naruse’s lovers’ warmer brighter past in French Indochina – a deeply romantic paradise to which we can never return.
I certainly hope that’s not the case. I hope the future of cinema and the future of repertory streaming services spreads out before us like a mighty bounty.
To ensure this, we all have do our part. Watch movies. Buy movies. All movies. Become cine-literate in everything. Especially the classics.
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Preservation in the Post-Filmstruck Era
What’s next? The terrific physical media company The Criterion Collection is starting their own streaming channel. Will it succeed? Only if enough of us are interested in preserving our globe’s sometimes shared, sometimes divergent cultural heritage.
Films are doorways into past and future worlds. These stories have shaped us, and allowed a plethora of fascinating cultures to share their preoccupations, hopes, and fears with other, sometimes very different people, in every far-flung nook and cranny of this astonishing world. These dreams, stories, and feelings are too important to be allowed to just fade away.
Please preserve them.
Write to David B. Sporn at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Keye Luke: An American Son
Following an in-depth look at American actor/playwright, the late Sam Shephard; Cadrecinematique examines another American film icon, Keye Luke.
Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, two of early Hollywood’s biggest Asian American movie stars, wound down their careers portraying Zen masters on the popular TV series “Kung Fu”. Almost fifty years had passed since anti-miscegenation laws had prohibited Asian actors from playing romantic leading roles opposite white women, and Luke and Ahn were once again playing Asian stereotypes in support of a white actor in yellowface. As playwright Frank Chin asks, “From Fu Manchu to ‘Kung Fu’ – Is that progress?”
However, unlike Frank Chin, Keye Luke was genuinely satisfied with his Hollywood career and what he viewed as the transitioning representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1985 Luke stated that he was satisfied with the progress of Asian representations:
“The Chinese laundryman and the Japanese gardener may still be with us, but most Chinese and Japanese now find themselves in the mainstream of American life.”
Keye Luke was not the first Asian star in Hollywood. Sessue Hayakawa, a favorite actor of Cecil B. DeMille, roared to stardom in 1915. Hayakawa’s performances, like those of other Asian American actors of the early studio era, were valued for their intrinsic otherness. Hollywood played up the exoticism of American born Asian actors such as Anna May Wong who was cast as the proverbial ‘Dragon Lady’ in such films as Daughter of the Dragon (1931).
Keye Luke, although an actor of the same generation, never embraced these stereotypes. Throughout his studio era film career Luke always remained a distinctly American presence. In a career that spanned sixty years and over a hundred films, Keye Luke transitioned from playing brash young Americans to more traditional Hollywood representations of Chinese. This implies that identity is conceived through binary oppositions. One can only be Chinese or American. Keye Luke believed progress in the cinematic portrayal of Chinese and other ethnic groups would be incremental.
Towards the end of his life Keye Luke remarked that no role was ever more satisfying than his role in “Kung Fu”; he was finally able to share Chinese philosophy with the general American public. Keye Luke transcended the dichotomy of being trapped between two dissonant cultures. He remains the exuberant boy next door and the kindly paternal sage for a society in which identity is not solely conceived through race.
Keye Luke: An All-American Boy
Keye Luke was born in Guangzhou, China in 1904, but grew up in Seattle. Luke studied architecture at the University of Washington, dropping out in order to work, after the death of his father. A gifted artist, his first job was designing sheet music covers for a local Seattle music shop. He soon moved to Los Angeles and began working as a newspaper illustrator. His illustrations were highly praised. In a 1928 Los Angeles Times article written by art editor Arthur Miller; Lawrence Binyon, the director of prints and drawings for the British Museum, was quoted as saying,
“I expect that in vitality of line, Mr. Keye Luke altogether surpasses Beardsley… but I confess I fear for the future of this young artist if he remains in the West… I would like to see him back in China bringing new life and inspiration to Chinese art.”
Although critics hold Luke in high regard, few publishers had hired him as an illustrator for Western stories. Miller would ask a question of Luke’s art that holds true regarding his work in film,
“Can oriental and occidental art be blended successfully? It remains for Keye Luke, perhaps, to be the proving ground for or against this question.”
During Luke’s time in Los Angeles he also painted several murals in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1930, after returning to Seattle to paint murals for department stores, he was hired by Fox West Coast to draw artwork for their theater chain. Soon he was moved to the publicity department where he ironically drew illustrations for early Charlie Chan films. In 1931 he moved to RKO where he drew advertising art and billboards. At RKO he illustrated the press-book for King Kong.
In 1933, Lou Brock, an RKO producer, was packaging a sequel to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger vehicle Flying Down to Rio, and wanted Luke to play a love interest for Anna May Wong. Keye Luke remembers turning to Brock and saying, “Lou, I am an artist not an actor.” In a 1934 interview with the LA Times, Luke admits being immediately hooked on the idea of becoming an actor. He believed that his performances could have a positive effect on the Chinese American experience,
“This is something that I suppose -that I hope-I’ve always been headed for…I think I can accomplish much more as an actor than as an artist, because of the wider reach of the medium. I want to play good, representative types, so as to help clear up the debris of misunderstanding and misconception of the Chinese which Americans may have, and vice versa. And I want to be a real credit to the industry…”
Brock did cast Luke in a series of short subjects. Luke’s eloquent command of the English language led to being cast in The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo and his future Charlie Chan co-star Warner Oland. Luke recalls that doors suddenly started opening for him,
“The thing that helped me so much was that all my former advertising bosses and so on opened doors for me. And the newspaper columnists – like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Jimmy Starr – they gave me lots of publicity because I had done artwork for their columns.”
Number One Son
After filming The Painted Veil he was called by one of his former publicity bosses at Fox, who said,
“Come out here and we’ll see what we can do now that you’re a Cantonese ham.”
Luke headed down to the older Fox studio on Western Avenue, and was greeted by Jim Ryan, a casting director, who said,
“Keye, do you know we’re going to put a Number One Son in the Charlie Chan pictures and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play it.”
This meeting was his big break. Fox signed him to a contract. Luke would work opposite Warner Orland in eight Charlie Chan films. Warner Oland’s worsening alcoholism and failing health prompted him to leave a ninth Charlie Chan collaboration which was re-written as a Mr. Moto film albeit with Keye Luke’s Lee Chan playing a large role.
Luke subsequently left the Charlie Chan series when the title role was recast. He respected Warner Oland, and over the course of their eight films together, the Swede had become his mentor. He jumped from Fox to Monogram where he starred in the low budget serials The Green Hornet and The Phantom of Chinatown.
A Chinese Andy Hardy
After those serials ended, Monogram cast him as a supporting character in a series of comedies built around their star Frankie Darro. The success of the Darro pictures prompted MGM to sign Luke and cast him as a young All-American intern in the Dr. Kildare films. His character, Dr. Lee Wong How, is a revival of Luke’s Son Number One star image – brash, enormously positive, and sweet. He also appeared as Dr. Lee in Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, which is fitting because Lee Chan’s all American relationship with Charlie Chan parallels Andy’s relationship with his father, Judge Hardy.
The Dr. Kildare series ended in 1947 with Dark Delusion. Luke returned to Monogram and was cast once again as Lee Chan, playing opposite Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, who was six months younger than Luke. The film roles began to dry up for the youthful looking, but middle-aged actor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Luke shifted to television work and voice acting; although, in 1958 he performed on Broadway in The Flower Drum Song to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s that he experienced a career resurgence.
Keye Luke was cast as Master Po in “Kung Fu” which ran from 1972-1975. The show was extremely popular and his character was a pop-culture sensation. For the first time in his career, Keye Luke’s visage was adorning lunchboxes.
In 1984 Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante cast Luke as the wise Grandfather, Mr. Wing in Gremlins. His last role was as the sage herbalist in Woody Allen’s Alice. In effect, Son Number One became Charlie Chan. Keye Luke, who played highly energetic All American characters for the first half of his career, ended his career by playing a series of traditional (some would argue stereotypical) Chinese characters.
Just as these old men sought to teach Confucianism and natural order to their students, Keye Luke sought to share Eastern philosophy with mainstream America. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke contends that he was never happier than when performing these traditional roles,
“I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue. It worked for me on every level.”
Within the Chinese-American community Keye Luke’s career is divisive. He is recognized as the Chinese-American actor best known to American audiences. As a contract actor in the studio era he played many different types of characters. Many Chinese-Americans lauded him as a man who broke through a racist system and demonstrated that Chinese-Americans were little different from any other Americans.
“I have played many…. characters in the mainstream. Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles — lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.”
However, some Asian-American scholars have demeaned him for appeasing institutional racism. Television scholar Darryl Hamamoto decries that:
“With few exceptions, Keye Luke’s outstanding career was predicated upon his ability to portray the stock array of Asian domestic servants, laundrymen, mystics, gangsters, and enemy soldiers.”
While it is true that Luke has played stock characters over the course of his long and varied career, the Chinese launderer in Manhandled and an evil communist soldier in The Bamboo Prison as examples, these excursions do little to diminish the distinctive American-ness of his star image for the first thirty years of his career. Hamamoto is correct to label Luke’s television output as more problematic. During the 1960s Luke was forced to play an array of stock Asian characters. These roles were all that were available to a middle-aged Chinese American actor at that point in Hollywood’s history.
Focusing on these roles is to ignore Luke’s achievements. For the majority of his career he played characters “lawyers, doctors, businessman,” that were strong role models for young Chinese Americans.
Allan Luke, Keye’s nephew and a theorist studying multi-literacy linguistics at Queensland University of Technology understands Hamamoto’s position but defends his uncle,
“…my Uncle was no dupe, no sellout, no Uncle Tom, no Banana… He was many things. He was a mirror. He was a prism. …And perhaps like so many migrants – he was an actor… he worked to survive in good faith, within and through a fundamentally racist medium.”
The Charlie Chan films are not inherently racist. Charlie Chan is a character of the highest ideals. He is intelligent, resourceful, respected, and modest. He is a family man and shares a strong bond with his eldest son. He is also played by a white man. This did not bother Keye Luke. He understood this type of casting was a commonplace at that time. To Keye Luke, what was important was the portrayal of the Chinese ethic.
In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke was asked about his opinion on yellowface in classical Hollywood films. He replied,
“I didn’t see anything odd about it at the time and I still don’t. Acting is an art that transcends race and color. When I came to Hollywood there were only a few Chinese here and no other Orientals.”
A Real American Icon
The Son Number One character was first introduced in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Paris. Lee Chan does not appear until almost twenty minutes into the film. After investigating a crime scene, Charlie Chan returns to his room. The door, which he left he open, has been locked. He unlocks the door and hears a sound from the bathroom. He pulls out his gun, and in his stereotypical manner says, “Come out, please.” A man comes out, a towel covering his head. Keye Luke finishes drying his hair and pulls away the towel. He looks up at his father and smiles, and immediately begins speaking in an upbeat unaccented machine-gun Hechtian cadence,
“Hello pop! What’s the matter? Did I scare you?”
The character is unlike any other in Hollywood film of the time. He is Chinese sans otherness. As soon as he speaks, the surprised audience pictures a sort of Andy Hardy-esque teenager. The proverbial boy-next-door. Ethnicity is transcended.
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To Hear, One Has Only to Listen
At the end of his career Keye Luke began playing sage older men, similar to Charlie Chan. The two most famous of these traditional characters are Master Po from “Kung-Fu” and the Grandfather in Gremlins. Both characters allowed Luke to channel Eastern philosophy to the American masses. A famous scene in “Kung Fu” revolves around Caine (David Carradine) meeting the blind master for the first time. As they talk, Master Po asks Caine if he can hear the grasshopper at his feet. Caine responds, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” Luke responds, “Young man, how is it that you cannot?” Luke was satisfied that this type of dialogue conveyed aspects of Chinese philosophy.
Critics like Frank Chin disagree, “The more brilliantly meaningless the lines, the more wooden, stilted and archaic the English, the more Chinese they (Americans) think it is.” It is pointless to argue whether these lines themselves have meaning. On the screen, infused with Luke’s warmth and humanity, “To hear, one has only to listen,” can inform a generation, no matter if it was written by a Confucian master or a Hollywood hack.
Towards the end of his life, Keye Luke was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, directly across from Grauman’s Chinese theater, which he helped design more than sixty years earlier.
Keye Luke belonged to the first generation of Asian-American actors. However, he stood out. Within a racist industry, Luke created a purely American star-image.
Keye Luke should not be demeaned for the demands of the studio system. He should be remembered for opening the door for a generation of actors that will never have to endure classical stereotyping and institutional racism.
Write to David Sporn at email@example.com
 Frank Chin. “Kung Fu is Unfair to Chinese” The New York Times
 Arthur Miller. “ROMANCE WEAVES AURA AROUND WORK OF YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN ARTIST” Dec 16, 1928
 The Sequel to be called Ho for Shanghai never materialized. Brock was fired off the project after studio in-fighting.
 Ken Hanke. Charlie Chan at The Movies. History, Filmography, and Criticism
 Los Angeles Times July 22nd 1934
 The New York Times. Keye Luke, Actor, Is Dead at 86; ‘No. 1 Son’ and ‘Kung Fu’ Master
 Darryl Hamamoto. Monitored Peril
 Allan Luke. “Another Ethnic Autobiography”
 In 1972 Keye Luke voiced Charlie Chan in “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” an animated series by Hanna and Barbera. He fittingly became the first person of Chinese descent to portray the character.
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Sam Shepard – America Personified
“Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not the head. It moves us into an area of mystery…” – Sam Shepard, 1975
Since I was a little boy I always believed that Sam Shepard embodied the American Dream. You could see it in his eyes – the rugged individualism of Western Manifest Destiny that made this nation great. Maybe that’s because I first glimpsed the man in Philip Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) as Chuck Yeager, the most famous of America’s test pilots. And to every kid that grew up watching ‘The Right Stuff’, test pilots were modern America’s cowboys – great adventurous men that lived and worked outside the normal bounds and rules of our conventional society.
The Right Stuff
In the ‘The Right Stuff’, Sam Shepard – tall, lanky, and blessed with those all-American looks that somehow always seem to skip the coasts – is introduced in the desert, silhouetted in front of a giant Western sun. He stands solemnly (do real heroes stand any other way?) in the back row of a small funeral for a nameless fallen test pilot.
After an establishing close-up of Yeager, we next see him on horseback, again first glimpsed in silhouette, watching Glamorous Glennis, bearing an expression that conveys fear, amusement, and a religious fascination with his craft, all hidden under a mask of placid calm. Sam Shepard’s Yeager is a man of preternatural calm. He speaks with that curt profane Western poetry that has all but disappeared from the States. Maybe it never left the desert.
The man is a myth; we never really learn that much about Yeager, we only learn the legend. Sometimes legends are enough. Shepard, like Yeager, is bigger than life, way bigger. No matter! In this case learning a few of the facts will do little to diminish the legend.
Sam Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois in 1943. Fort Sheridan was a military outpost in the affluent North Shore suburbs of Chicago. His mother was a school teacher, a Chicagoan by birth. His father, a bomber pilot in the US military, was stationed in Italy when Shepard was born.
The family moved around constantly, finally finding a stable home in Duarte, California when Shepard was still young. At the time Duarte was a town of about 13,000 people. Although not far from Pasadena, Duarte was an agriculture town thick with avocado groves.
Shepard had a difficult relationship with his father, and described him as “a drinking man, a dedicated alcoholic”. (On a side note – Shepard’s description of his father is a great example of his poetic, near perfect, use of language in a concise and pithy manner that excises that loquacious East-Coast blather. Second side note, years later, Shepard would have his own troubles with drink, culminating in two well-publicized drunk driving arrests in 2009 and 2015.) I’ll allow Shepard to further describe his father thusly –
“He had a tough life – had to support his mother and brother at a very young age when his dad’s farm collapsed. You could see his suffering, his terrible suffering, living a life that was disappointing and looking for another one. My father was full of terrifying anger.”
From a young age, Shepard’s passions ran towards the outdoors. He excelled at rugged athletic pursuits that one would expect from such a prime example of square-jawed Americana. In 1961, he enrolled in Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California to study agriculture. In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, Shepard described a life-changing moment in his college experience –
“I happened to get into a literature class, I don’t know how exactly, with a lot of guys from that area whom I had never had any contact with; for lack of a better word they were beatniks. They lived in this big old house and one of them was a painter and they were smoking a lot of dope out there, and they had stuff lying around like Beckett plays, Jackson Pollock reproductions, which I’d never heard of. That was the first encounter I had with Beckett, with jazz, abstract expressionism. And then I just left.”
Shortly after dropping out of college, Shepard joined Bishop’s Company Repertory Players, a small religiously oriented traveling theater company. They traveled the country by bus, mainly playing church groups. They performed Christopher Fry plays. Fry’s a great playwright, a favorite of Margaret Thatcher, but a far cry from Beckett and theatrical abstraction.
Shepard escaped the company during a stopover in New York City. The young performer was now alone in an unfamiliar and indifferent metropolis.
Portrait of an Artist
By happenstance, Charles Mingus III, the son of jazz bassist Charles Mingus, was living in Greenwich Village, and had attended Duarte High School with Shepard. Shepard crashed with Mingus, who got him a job as a busboy at the Village Gate, the famous nightclub.
Living and working in Greenwich Village, Shepard found himself in the center of the emerging experimental theater scene. Not surprisingly, the majority of the staff at the Village Gate were aspiring actors.
During his off-hours, Shepard watched plays at the newly opened Caffe Cino, the focal point for the off-off-Broadway movement, which was characterized by a complete rejection of the tenants of commercial theater.
Soon Sam Shepard began writing. His early plays fused the style of Becket with the Western-working-man mores that Shepard had absorbed.
Ralph Cook, the headwaiter at the Village Gate, who was attempting to open his own theater, managed to produce Shepard’s short play ‘The Cowboys’. Few attended and the critics were ruthless. Nonetheless, young Shepard kept writing.
By 1965 he caught the interest of Edward Albee, the writer of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’. Albee called Shepard “…one of the most exciting individual talents”. His plays were interesting failures. Short, hip, and bizarre, written over the course of long drug-fuelled nights. He was not yet a fully formed talent, but there was clearly intelligence, wit, and more importantly originality in his writing.
This originality lead to six Obie Awards over the next three years. In 1967, he finally released his first full length play – ‘La Turista’. The play is mildly autobiographical; he explains to the Guardian, that it was based on a vacation to Mexico with his girlfriend,
“We were holed up in a tiny sweltering motel room in the Yucatan in a semi delirious state of severe dysentery.”
I Remember You Well in the Chelsea Hotel
1967 was a big year for Sam Shepard, for he also met his first wife, actress O-Lan Johnson. After getting her pregnant, he married her in 1969. Their son is named after Jesse James.
The late sixties were a whirlwind of action for the young writer. He hung out at the Chelsea Hotel, the archetypal rock+roll+drug+sex+anything living space of the era – a habitual hangout (hookup spot) for Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, among others – basically the East Coast version of the Château Marmont.
He drummed in the rock band The Holy Modal Rounders, had an affair with rock legend Patti Smith, who performed with him in a play they co-authored called ‘Cowboy Mouth‘ which they wrote over the course of two nights shoving the typewriter back and forth between them.
They were both known as hellraisers who had seriously self-destructive impulses, and inflicted quite a bit of abuse on one another. Shepard was quite open with his wife about the affair, as he said, “it wasn’t like committing adultery in the suburbs”.
Quick story: Shepard and Smith decided to get a self-proclaimed gypsy and professional muse named Vali Myers to tattoo them, as they were being filmed by experimental filmmaker Sandy Daley. Vali gave him a crescent moon between his thumb and index finger, Smith was left with a lightening bolt on her knee.
As destructive as their relation was, Shepard and Smith remained close friends for the rest of his life. She wrote a touching and lyrical encomium for him in The New Yorker. Her piece is entitled ‘My Buddy‘. Shepherd also wrote for Kenneth Tynan’s (the mostly eminent critic and William F. Buckley JR adversary) sex play ‘Oh! Calcutta!’
Cinema of Dislocation
During this time, Sam Shepard was approached by film director Michelangelo Antonioni (one of the three gods of European art cinema, along with Igmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Antonioni directed ‘La Notte’ which starred Jeanne Moraeu who died on the same day as Shepard, which may be a cosmic coincidence of sorts, but I digress…) to write ‘Zabriskie Point’ which was to become Antonioni’s first American film. The maestro was struggling with his own early drafts. Shepard did not enjoy the experience nor did he enjoy screenwriting in general, as he recounts to the Village Voice,
“I hate it…It’s never just working on a film. It has to do with studios, with pleasing certain people, cutting things down and re-writing. It’s not a writer’s medium…the writer is just superfluous.”
Shepard wrote a couple drafts, the basis for the narrative then left the project,
“I didn’t know how to continue with what Antonioni wanted. He wanted political repartee and I just didn’t know how. Plus I was 24 and just wasted by the experience. It was like a nightmare.”
He even loathed becoming a sought after screenwriter. Neither the promise of money nor Hollywood fame could lure him. Shepard subsequently retreated as quickly as he could back into the world of playwriting.
“…You get these scripts showing up in the mail. Can you do this one? Can you do that one? Twenty thousand for this one and 30 thousand for that one. It’s like an open auction… I find it exhausting; not only exhausting – debilitating.
Nonetheless, he would later write the script for German director Wim Wender‘s appropriately lauded ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) starring the great Harry Dean Stanton as a wandering amnesic.
Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa viewed cinema as the greatest of the arts because it combines all the other arts. Shepard would have rejected that – he believed the same was true with theater.
“…It seems to me theatre contains all the other arts. You can put anything in that space – painting, film, dance, music, it can all be contained. Whereas in other arts everything is narrowed down, a spatial art like theatre is unlimited…I’m really interested in the three dimensional aspect, with human performers performing for other live human beings.”
Exhausted by his destructive and anarchic life in New York City, Sam Shepard moved his family to London. He continued to write, producing several plays during this period. Notably, Shepard directed Bob Hoskins in an original production in the West End.
Nonetheless, he spent much of his time gambling and dealing with mounting depression. He finally decided to return to the way of life that had always served him best, so he and his family moved to a ranch in California. In his interview with The Guardian, Shepard remembers,
“It suddenly occurred to me that I was mainly avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which was the family. I was a little afraid of it, particularly in relation to my old man and all of that emotion…”
The Old Homestead
It was on the ranch that Shepard wrote his most famous plays. The second play of his Family Trilogy – ‘Buried Child’ won the Pulitzer Prize. The play examined the Carter-led economic slow-down of the late Seventies and the destructive breakdown of the nuclear family in rural America.
It’s not an easy play to watch or read, but it is de rigueur. Shepard has the ability not only to document, but also to explore, understand, and codify American malaise with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.
I saw ‘Buried Child‘ performed in college; it shook me on both an artistic and political level. The New York Times quite elegantly describes Shepard’s plays of this era as having a “style that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy.”
The Silver Screen
In 1978 Hollywood called once again. Director Terrence Malick (the hermetic poet laureate of American film) cast Shepard in his western ‘Days of Heaven’, the long-awaited follow-up to Malick’s masterful debut ‘Badlands’ (1973). Shepard played a dying farmer swindled by Richard Gere’s duplicitous seasonal laborer.
Both the film and Shepard’s performance received raves. Overnight, Shepard was in demand as a Hollywood actor. Predictably he turned down parts left and right; he couldn’t adjust to his new life.
Sam Shepard returned to the screen in 1980, just as he was finishing his play ‘True West’. ‘True West’ is considered his second masterpiece. The late seventies through the early eighties were peak years for Shepard’s writing. His second Hollywood film was called ‘Resurrection’ and was a star vehicle for Ellen Burstyn. Although Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award, the film quickly retreated from the public consciousness.
Shepard acted in supporting roles in smaller dramas until 1983 when he accepted the role he was born to play – Chuck Yeager in ‘The Right Stuff’. While the film was not initially a hit, it received rave reviews from critics and earned Shepard an Academy Award nomination for best Supporting Actor for his iconic high-flying performance. The film, as you know, is a favorite of this author.
Shepard subsequently appeared in such diverse films as ‘Steel Magnolias’ (1989), ‘All The Pretty Horses’ (2000), ‘The Notebook’ (2004), and most memorably in Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) in an impactful performance as another great American, Major General William F. Garrison.
The Family Trilogy and a Lover’s Quarrel
‘True West’ which is the final play in Shepard’s Family Trilogy, and a thematic sequel to ‘Buried Child’ was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play examines the fractured relationship between a Hollywood screenwriter and his small-time criminal brother.
After a disastrous first-run at the Public Theater in New York City, which the author boycotted, the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago rehabilitated the play’s reputation in a version directed by and starring Gary Sinise.
Shepard followed ‘True West’ in 1984 with ‘Fool for Love’, considered by many to be his last truly great play. The play follows two young quarreling lovers in a motel in the Mojave Desert.
The following year, ‘Fool for Love’ was adapted into a middling feature film directed by Robert Altman with Shepard, himself, miscast as the lead opposite Kim Basinger. Altman’s film captures little of the manic energy of the stage play.
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That American Spirit
1984 marked the end of Shepard’s first marriage. He had been having an affair with actress Jessica Lange for two years. Lange remembers that he had…
“…that wildness, that typically American wildness, a no-restraints outlaw quality…When we were together we were so wild – drinking, getting into fights, walking down the freeway trying to get away – I mean, just really wild stuff. He left his wife and we drove to New Mexico; and that’s where we settled…He’s a great man, a natural man, which is rare. I’ve known a lot of men. And you know I’ve had romances with what you’d call famous men, and none compares to Sam in terms of maleness.”
In many ways she describes both the Sam Shepard that we see on the screen, and the man that emanates from the pages of his plays – individualistic, rugged, masculine, whip smart, charming, and imperfect.
Shepard could never reconcile his film stardom and play writing. He became truly famous because of his winsome features and laconic tone, while his passion never captured the mainstream. Inside the matinee idol was a shaggy dog experimental playwright.
In the end he was both the embodiment of the rugged Western hero, and a blissfully drugged out Greenwich Village artist writing off-kilter subversions that most audiences will never watch.
Maybe that’s the real American Dream.
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