August 9, 2017

Still Burning Bright — Jeanne Moreau and Sam Shepard

Jeanne Moreau and Sam Shepard died in the same week, the playwright at 73 on July 27, the actress at 89 on July 31. Their obituaries were paired in the pages of the New York Times and Antonio Banderas posted their photographs side by side with his message on the Los Angeles Times remembrance blog: “thank you for enlightening us at 24 frames per second.”

In 2001 when Moreau was 73 she told the Times: “The cliché is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.” 

Sam Shepard could relate to Moreau’s fusing of life and fire. It’s already there in an early play called The Holy Ghostly that had its American premiere at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in January 1970. I wonder how the production staff at McCarter and director Tom O’Horgan (Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar) handled the stage directions at the conclusion, which call for the “whole theatre” to be “consumed in flames” as the main character screams “BURN! BURN! BURN!” over and over and “dances in the fire.”

Among Shepherd’s formative influences, according to John J. Winters’s new biography Sam Shepard: A Life (Counterpoint 2017), was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which celebrates people “who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

When announcing Moreau’s death, French president Emmanuel Macron said that she “always rebelled against the established order.” In La Moreau: A Biography of Jeanne Moreau (Dutton 1996) by Marianne Gray, Moreau recalls skipping a Latin class to see a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone: “I was amazed because in Antigone, the girl rebels. She resists authority. She is not afraid of time. I wanted to be like her.” Moreau was 15, living with her mother and sister in an apartment above a brothel during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Shepard was 16 when he saw François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) about a rebellious 14-year-old. The film “stayed with him.” Quoted in Winter, he says it “really stunned me …. I saw a lot of similarities between my situation and that.” Shepard almost certainly made a point of seeing Truffaut’s next film, Jules and Jim, with Moreau’s magnetic performance as the free-spirited “desirous of everything” Catherine.

Riding Through the Village Gate

It’s a classic Youth Coming to Manhattan story: in the fall of 1963 Sam Shepard was 19, landing in Times Square fresh off the bus from California, his “immediate mission a cheeseburger,” which he sells his blood to pay for. His first job was with a detective agency, working the overnight shift in a shed on the East River where he had plenty of time to write between making the rounds (“I wrote all the time. Everywhere”), keeping himself awake with a mixture of Coca-Cola and crystal meth. Meanwhile he was sharing an East Village cold-water flat with jazz legend Charlie Mingus’s son, who helped get him a job busing tables at the Village Gate, a stroke of fortune since the maitre d’ also happened to direct plays at the Theatre Genesis while the nightly exposure to live jazz energized his writing. In an interview quoted by Winter, Shepard, who played drums, says “Jazz could move in surprising territories, without qualifying itself …. You could have three, four things going on simultaneously …. You could move in all these emotional territories, and you could do it with passion.” In another interview cited by Winters, the cowboy playwright admits never rewriting anything in his first plays: “I was riding those plays like you’d ride a horse. You’d go as hard as you could.”

Shepard gives a vivid impression of the creative ferment of the time in his introduction to The Unseen Hand, a 1986 Bantam paperback collection of his early work, where he describes “the immediacy of the off-off-Broadway situation. Anybody could get his or her piece performed almost any time …. You could go into full-scale rehearsals with nothing more than an idea of half a page of written text. It was a playwright’s heaven …. The only impulse was to make living, vital theater which spoke to the moment. And the moment, back then in the mid-sixties, was seething with a radical shift of the American psyche.”

Shepard and Wenders

I’ve never seen a Shepard play in the theatre. My only explanation for missing out on the excitement has to do with access, expense, and, mainly, an all-consuming, virtually lifelong passion for movies, old and new, foreign and American. Thankfully, the living director whose work I most admire is Wim Wenders, who has made two extraordinary films from Shepard screenplays, Paris, Texas (1984) and Don’t Come Knocking (2006). Wenders originally wanted to make a film of Shepard’s prose memoir, Motel Chronicles, which inspired, instead, the central image of Paris, Texas, “of someone leaving the freeway and walking straight into the desert.” According to the Winters biography, Shepard listed “memory, time, family” and “lostness” among the things the film was to explore. Fortunately for everyone, he resisted Wenders’s plea and refused to play the key role of the man who walks into the desert. Shepard would have done well by the part, but Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis is a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic miracle. No one in or out of Hollywood has ever done so much with something as precariously sentimental as the evolving relationship between Travis and Hunter (Hunter Carson), the eight-year-old son he hasn’t seen since the boy was three. In fact, the onscreen rapport comes not from Shepard, who is drawn to combative father-son relationships, but from the warmth of Wenders’s direction and the insights of the boy’s real-life father L.M. Kit Carson, who adapted the screenplay.

When the Paris, Texas chips were down, Shepard provided a conclusion worthy of the beginning and middle. Receiving Wenders’s we-need-an-ending SOS on location with another film, Shepard sat down, wrote it, and telephoned it from Iowa to Wenders in Houston, a call that lasted from midnight to 6 a.m., reflecting the part played by a telephone in the unforgettable one-way-mirror scene between Travis and his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski). Finding himself confronted with a long, emotionally complex monologue on which the fate of the film depended, Harry Dean Stanton, in Carson’s words, “went nuts and had to talk to Sam,” and Sam told him (another phone call) “Just. Say. The. Words. It’s all there.” So he did. And what words. The speech Shepard wrote for Travis in Paris, Texas reached more people than anything he ever wrote for the stage. In the course of pointing out how the film was “a giant hit overseas,” Carson notes that the English distributor had T-shirts printed, some of which contained the text of Travis’s monologue, all of it.

Another Lost Father

While Don’t Come Knocking should not be missed by anyone curious to see Shepard playing a role he wrote for himself, the qualities that make the film worth writing about at length, as I did in a previous column (“The Return of Wim Wenders: Everything Is Illuminated,” Oct. 4, 2006), come down to the director’s vision and the stunning Edward Hopper clarity sustained by cinematographer Franz Lustig. For Wenders, “To have Sam in front of the camera is one of my oldest desires as a filmmaker,” but the character of Howard Spence, the rootless movie cowboy, had obvious limitations. A plot about a misfit who finds he has a grown son and decides to go looking for him would seem to be another take on Paris, Texas, except that Howard is a much less compelling character than Travis, who is weirdly likable even in his wild state. It’s not easy to like Howard, a man at odds with his life and the mess he’s made of it, and fed up with playing the same role again and again. That’s why he bolts from a film set and finds his way to Butte, Montana and the woman he left behind, the mother of his son (played with angry energy by Shepard’s real-life mate, Jessica Lange). The son (Gabriel Mann) is as mean and ornery as his father. It’s a father-son dynamic dating back to the one in The Holy Ghostly, not to mention the one at the core of Shepard’s life.

The Dimensions of Moreau

When Jeanne Moreau’s father heard that she wanted to become an actress, he slapped her across the face and said he never wanted to hear her talk about it again. Like Shepard’s father, he was a heavy drinker. According to www.newwavefilm.com, Moreau’s teenage years in Paris, where her British mother, as an enemy alien, had to to register daily with the Gestapo, were “a dark time.” Her refuge was reading: “I read many books far too soon. They made me sick with terror and fascination. I read Zola when I was 13.”

Obviously, Moreau is too large a force to comfortably fit into a shared column, though she could have made a fascinating Jane for Travis, never mind their ages, Stanton being 58 and Kinski 24, when Paris, Texas was filmed. In the same year, at 56, Moreau was in Fassbinder’s Querelle singing/chanting à la Marlene Dietrich, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

Watch three films of Moreau’s in three successive nights on Filmstruck and you know this is someone who could say, at 73, “life is going up until you are burned by flames.” She burns at once brightly and fitfully as the frenetic roulette addict in Jacques Demy’s Baie des Anges (1962), a picture Pauline Kael describes as “almost an emanation of Moreau, inconceivable without her.” It’s a virtuoso, totally convincing performance, whether she’s doing Marilyn Monroe moves or mesmerizing her gambling partner with lovely sunny-sweet smiles that come and go like mirages. In Louis Malle’s Les Amants (1959), a ride with an amusing stranger leaves her laughing in the face of her husband and lover on the eve of a glorious night of illegitimate love. She’s borderline demonic, viciously capering about in Joseph Losey’s Eva (1962), showing at every twist and turn what David Thomson means when he observes, “Above all, without any trace of rhetoric, she bares a vivid but vulnerable soul.” Even as she destroys a man in Eva, she conveys, in Thomson’s words, both “sexual dominance” and “a residual sadness that so brutal a sexual conflict should exist.” I still prefer Moreau as Catherine in Jules and Jim, and as Doll Tearsheet in Chimes at Midnight, Shakespeare’s Falstaff by way of Orson Welles, who once called her “the greatest actress in the world.”

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Sam Shepard’s Simpatico is coming to McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, September 8 — October 15. For details, see mccarter.org.