by Lexy Van Dyke
People are generally befuddled when I bring him up as an influence. He was known for the “masculine cowboy with a heart of gold” film persona. I most definitely appreciated his acting talent. Shepard was able to bring out a different facet of himself with each performance. There was always a slight difference in every “rugged man” he portrayed, either with a slight character choice or the way he held the dialogue in his mouth. Maybe it was because you knew his mind was always working in the moment. His brain was working to make the scene better and his execution made it seem effortless.
One of his first films as an actor was in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. He plays a farmer who inadvertently enters a love triangle with two desperate grifters played by Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. This kind of character would become key to his persona: a soft-spoken southerner with a good heart and a secret. You would think persona would not age well or feel one dimensional, but through the years he was able to bring earnestness and a multifaceted performance to each film project.
I read his plays in college and they had a profound impact on me. Shepard had a way of a discussing the pain and love of family relationships in a reasonable and naturalistic way. The stories seem offbeat when you read a synopsis, but the truth is that every family has these ghosts that haunt them. All family experiences are different, yet we all have one commonality: these are our kin and our relations. These are people we are stuck with even when they are not in our lives anymore. Their presence weighs on our psyche and the decisions we make everyday. Shepard could see the intricacies of these moments and expand upon them in a naturalistic way. His dialogue is key because you know what these characters are going to say before the words come out of their mouths. But the way the characters end up conversing is the best version of what we all want to say in these moments. Real people don’t talk in flowery words; we talk with weight and directness. These characters have lived in their choices and these choices have become their identity. The humanity is real and the truth can be heartbreaking.
After hearing of Shepard’s passing, I watched the film Paris, Texas. Shepard wrote the screenplay for the Palme D’or-winning film for director Wim Wenders. This is a film that had been on my radar for a long time and I am happy I finally watched it. The acting is quite superb by everyone involved. The visuals are astounding and the soundtrack uses just enough of the atypical “southern sounds” without going overboard. This film is a slow burn, and I could feel the embers on my skin while I watched it. Harry Dean Stanton is truly phenomenal as Travis and his acting is so subtle that you know why he’s so underused. He’s able to portray so much while not speaking a word, which he doesn’t do in this film until about 20 minutes in. Travis, after abandoning his family four years prior, is reunited with his son, Hunter. He is trying to find Jane (Nastassja Kinski), his long lost love and the mother of his child. A good majority of the film is him reconnecting with the family and son he hasn’t seen in four years.
Sam Shepard will always be an inspiration to me. I will probably never write a play or screenplay. If I ever did, I would hope that I would lead by his example and create works that touch on the human experience and the connections we all share. I am so sad that he is gone, but I will always have his immense body of work to look back on and draw comfort from. In the meantime, there is always Paris, TX.