Scarcely Present, by Matt Warren
While at the National Archives this week doing my customary 18-36 hours of research per film review, I discovered some fascinating—if not downright astonishing—information about the actor Harry Dean Stanton. Did you know, for example, that Harry Dean Stanton once counted to infinity…twice? Or that Death once had a near Harry Dean Stanton experience? Or that Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t use the toilet; he just scares the shit out of it? I don’t even know how that’s possible, but it’s true.
What I’m getting at here is that Harry Dean Stanton is someone for whom the phrase “the man, the myth, the legend” legitimately applies. In theory, the subtitle of the new biographical documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction should work. Unfortunately, it’s unclear from director Sophie Huber’s disappointing new film what part—if any—of the Harry Dean Stanton personae is supposed to be fictional. Successful docs like this probe deep into their subjects. Huber merely photographs it. Boringly.
Huber’s intentions are good. She clearly wants this 90-minute content-free Green Zone to be a mythmaking love letter to a true American Original. But with such scant biographical data—real or not—and precious little emotional revelation betrayed by cagey interview subject Stanton, Huber seriously drops the ball with the “making myth” part of the equation. Drops it right through her slippery Swiss butterfingers.
Sorry, that’s mean. Anyone’s fingers would be slippery coated with that much melted Toblerone, Swiss or otherwise.
Look, Harry Dean Stanton is a G. This review isn’t a referendum on the man’s achievements. Effortlessly charismatic, HDS’s craggy-soulful screen presence has been making movies better since the Eisenhower administration. He seems like the runt of whatever litter Robert Mitchum tumbled out of—an uncontrived badass wholly confident in his own self-regard. But if Mitchum’s go-to tool was cruel nihilism, HDS’s is wounded dignity. Any character he plays could be interpreted as a metaphor for America. What other actor could you say that about?
Look at the stats. 200+ acting credits since 1956. Memorable turns in a murderers’ row of classic flicks including Paris, Texas, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Pretty in Pink, and Repo Man—aka Battleship Pretension senior contributor Matt Warren’s favorite movie of all-time. These are unassailable credentials, and they deserve a probing two-night, four-hour episode of American Masters. But for that, we wait.
What do we get instead? HDS leisurely cruising around LA in his 87-year-old semi-dottage making small talk with parking valets, bartenders, David Lynch, and some other nerds. We get a few celeb friends giving surface-level testemonials to his greatness (though I noted a conspicuous lack of Bono, who almost always pops up for a trite soundbite in this sort of thing.) And we get HDS croaking several full-length renditions of the kind of dully-authentic folk sons that are only palatable to high-level NPR donors and genuine olds.
What’s cool about Harry Dean Stanton is that he legitimately seems like he doesn’t give a fuck. But that doesn’t really lend itself to making a good documentary. At least not from the perspective Huber is trying to convey—i.e. the artist’s perspective on himself from the inside out. HDS is no dummy, but I’m not sure deep self-exploration is his thing. He doesn’t give the filmmakers much to work with.
The problem with Partly Fiction is that the filmmakers were depending on Harry Dean Stanton’s inherent coolness to carry the film. But Harry Dean Stanton’s cool exists on a different spectral plane, which isn’t photographable by Huber’s camera. Ghost cool.
Ordinary fucking movies. I hate ‘em.