Friendship manifests itself in many different forms, and can occasionally be one-sided, and with Radioman and Shepard & Dark, DOC NYC presents two very different observations on the avenues through which individuals feel fulfilled, or alienated, by those they consider close comrades.
Radioman—née Craig Castaldo—is ready for his close-up. Presented as an amusing profile more than a compelling character study, Mary Kerr’s Radioman is the documentary equivalent of having a droll conversation with a stranger at a dive bar while refusing to acknowledge any disturbing subtext within the stories told. Despite having an apartment, the once-homeless Radioman still leads a life that’s mostly of a vagabond, spending most of his days researching “on location” movie shoots in New York City and wandering the streets in search of a film set. Consistently fascinated by the process of filmmaking, Radioman also possesses a childlike excitement for the prospect of briefly appearing as an extra. Through a combination of persistence and the appearance of an essential NYC bum, he can be found in over 100 films—even if it’s just the back of his haggard head.
A cinephile at heart and an irrepressible attention whore, Radioman is depicted by Kerr as an unwitting example of the old-fashioned admirer of silver-screen stars. On the set of the Remember Me, Radioman almost seems disturbed by the way he isn’t impressed by Robert Pattinson’s New Hollywood presence. Radioman respects actors, and is exhilarated when they recognize him, and yet he’s delusional about the way he’s perceived by celebrities: as a friend. Kerr, however, never confronts these truths, even when Radioman exposes his diva complex by trashing the other extras on the set of The Dictator.
The doc features a bevy of passerby celebrities, briefly pausing on set to give a soundbite; after being furiously flagged down, Tom Hanks refers to Radioman as a “cultural institution” before quickly scurrying away. Kerr is similarly hung up on star wattage, and the film never transcends its straightforward aims because name-dropping (George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, ad nauseam) appears to serve a higher priority than character insight. Despite briefly mentioning Radioman’s battle with alcoholism and accidental stay in Manhattan’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, Kerr is too polite to search for any depth within this bizarre man. Like Radioman, the documentary never becomes more than an eccentric, but sadly peripheral, curiosity.
While Radioman involves questionable camaraderie on a weak subtextual level, Shepard & Dark addresses, and acutely analyzes, the way friendship can bend, and occasionally snap, over time. Pals for over 47 years since meeting in Greenwich Village in 1963, Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark spent just as many of those years together as they did apart. During the times they weren’t physically in each other’s presence, they would write to each other, and there now remains a canon of lucid letters between the two.
Director Treva Wurmfeld catches these two men—Shepard, a playwright and actor, and Dark, a label-less mensch currently working at a supermarket—at a perfect time; they’re reuniting to publish, through a Texas university press, a book of their letters. This provides the perfect frame from which to elaborate on their time and experiences together, even reminding Shepard and Dark of their forgotten memories, while consistently contextualizing the present. Due to his catalytic recent separation from Jessica Lange, Shepard now has the time to reflect on his life before Hollywood—which primarily involved Dark and the communal family unit of lovers and kin they belonged to from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. This is a past Shepard feels ambivalent about, at once driven to appreciate the warmth of his memories and yet aggressively apprehensive to surrender to nostalgia.
Dark quickly points out that he and Shepard are different, yet “complement each other,” but Wurmfeld does a fine job avoiding proscribed juxtaposition, often allowing the interplay between Dark and Shepard to speak for itself. Shepard is solipsistic, driven by wanderlust, and tortured by selfish decisions despite repeatedly making them; Dark, on the other hand, is a more hermetic, dog-loving pothead who spends most of his time in his tiny New Mexico bungalow writing Beat-influenced prose.
Mostly due to the modest yet eloquent duo, observed apart as much as together, Wurmfeld is able to coax out a portrait that’s refreshingly casual in its sage wisdom. While the documentary’s form is rather conventional, Wurmfeld is able to carefully and sparsely use snippets of the aforementioned letters and photos/footage from the past to full effect. The moment most indicative of this friendship, however, is a wonderful moment when the twosome walk out of a diner and Shepard starts to sing Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” Without hesitating, Johnny listens, and tries to add a bit to Shepard’s vocals, and they reach a harmony that’s both innately aligned and yet syncopated.
DOC NYC runs from November 8—15. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.