Home Video Hovel: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, by Craig Schroeder
I was surprised to learn Harry Dean Stanton is eighty-eight years old. He’s been in films since the sixties, spent years partying with Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, smokes like a chimney and wears all eighty-eight years on his face. So it would make sense to assume he’s as old as he is. But the consummate character actor has been a presence in cinema for so long, it seems bizarre that someone as timeless as Harry Dean Stanton can age. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction isn’t a portrait of the life of Harry Dean Stanton; it’s a mosaic mural of the famed character actor. There’s hardly any “remember when” stories, and few revelations about birth, death, divorce, or marriage. Instead, it’s a film that allows one of the most consistent, unsung heroes in Hollywood to get a few moments in the spotlight; even if he doesn’t want it.
Director Sophie Huber was never intent on creating a traditional bio-doc, and I imagine it would have been a lesser film if she had tried. The film consists mostly of interviews with Stanton and those he’s worked with and for, cut with interstitial scenes of Stanton’s finest on-screen work. But Huber manages to subvert the biographical documentary and create something fresh and interesting. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction feels as if you pulled up a stool next to Stanton in an empty bar and listened to whatever he felt like talking about until the bartender announced last call. Huber is more concerned in showing just how Stanton influenced the characters that made him famous. Huber is adept at capturing Stanton’s banal traits or on-camera quirks and matching them with scenes from his films, revealing the genesis of characters like Brett in Alien, Tramp in Cool Hand Luke and Stanton’s largest role as Travis Henderson in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.
Much of the film is simply interviews with and between Stanton and his frequent collaborators and friends. But Huber recognizes just how charming it is when her subjects are caught off guard, and the interviews frequently turn into candid conversations. Kris Kristofferson, one of Stanton’s friends (who wrote a song about Stanton, for which the film is named), has his interview interrupted by Stanton himself. Huber catches their reunion and continues Kristofferson’s interview segment with Stanton sitting next to him, listening quietly and chiming in every so often.
Stanton is a bit of an anomaly as an interview subject. He’s both reserved and unnervingly raw. He deftly diverts subjects he doesn’t want to talk about and at one point even tells Huber that his mother and father are not something he’s willing to discuss. Stanton often shies away from the camera or just runs out of things to say on a given subject. And it’s in moments of quiet and discomfort that Stanton is most revealing, complimented by Huber’s choice to shoot many of Stanton’s interviews in harsh black and white–though she isn’t consistent in her use of the black and white palette, which may be the film’s sole misstep. Despite his reservations, Stanton frequently sings throughout the film–and by mentioning it this late, I don’t want to downplay how provocative and fascinating his singing is, as these sequences are some of the best musical moments I’ve seen in recent memory. He sings and speaks about music in such an unguarded manner that it opens him up in ways that even the most intimate memoir couldn’t capture.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is a film about Harry Dean Stanton; but it’s also a film about film. Both the man and the documentary hold a reverence for the movies. If there’s a singular moment from the film that conveys Harry Dean Stanton’s role in cinema, it’s when Huber relegates the interviewing duties to David Lynch, Stanton’s longtime friend and collaborator. The interview quickly turns into two artists talking about their art. At one point Lynch pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and reads off a list of his films in which Stanton has appeared. Stanton flatly declares “we’re a team.” Lynch agrees and the two take drags off of their cigarettes.