Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

If one were asked to choose a single actor who personifies the whole history and mythology of American movies, Harry Dean Stanton would be an ideal selection. By his own estimate, Stanton has appeared in around 200 motion pictures -- not as a little Doctorowian cipher in the corner of the frame but as a commanding personality. Though he typically does character...read more

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Reviewed by Nathan Southern
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If one were asked to choose a single actor who personifies the whole history and mythology of American movies, Harry Dean Stanton would be an ideal selection. By his own estimate, Stanton has appeared in around 200 motion pictures -- not as a little Doctorowian cipher in the corner of the frame but as a commanding personality. Though he typically does character roles and has only tackled a few leads in his career, he's always pulsating with quiet emotional turbulence, breathing fire into every scene he’s in. Stanton even dominates onscreen relationships as a wordless background figure with his lanky frame, sallow cheeks, and deep-set, searching eyes; whatever the film at hand, he seems to be soaking up the details that lie before him, internalizing and processing them. One finds oneself asking: What of the human being who exists behind the enigmatic on-camera image?

With Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Swiss director Sophie Huber sets out to create the first and only biodoc of Stanton. That's great news, but Huber really has her work cut out for her. Stanton, we quickly discover, may be thoroughly loveable and charming, but he's also elusive and evasive -- an anemic, laconic personality, prone to responding to questions with abrupt sentences of only a few words each; his answers are actually so slight that they remind one of John Ford's responses in the infamous Ford/Peter Bogdanovich sessions, sans any trace of Ford's nastiness and cruelty. There are occasions in the documentary in which Huber goes for depth and Stanton gently rebuffs her -- when he hints at a troubled childhood, she asks him to expound on this and he patently refuses. He's a private, isolated character -- and far from an ideal documentary subject. At one point, he tells us that his philosophy of acting involves "doing nothing" and we can't help but read this as a transparent lie -- a conclusion driven home when Stanton's assistant turns up for an on-camera interview and says exactly that.

Huber did find a rather intuitive and brilliant way to at least partially work around the shallowness of the Stanton interview footage. She sits Harry on the couch with a couple of his longtime buddies and colleagues, one at a time -- first David Lynch, and later Kris Kristofferson. This perks Stanton up and encourages him to talk a bit more, and accordingly, we get deeper insights than we do when Harry turns up alone on camera. Of the two surrogate interviewees, Lynch does the best job at effectively drawing Stanton out. Still, the revelations are limited.

Having said all of that, though, the movie offers us several wonderful small pleasures that help compensate for any onscreen disappointments and will elate fans of the subject. First and foremost: The interviews themselves (with Stanton and such commentators as Wim Wenders, Debbie Harry, and Sam Shepard) are beautifully and elegantly shot in gorgeous, moody black-and-white that gives the motion picture an art-house feel. In fact, the whole documentary has a magnificent and unusual lyrical style that seems ideally paired with its subject; it feels influenced by the impressionistic Danish documentaries of Anne Regitze Wivel and Jørgen Leth, especially Leth's I'm Alive -- Soren Ulrik Thomsen, Poet (1999). Another plus: The interview responses from all of the supporting participants are consistently entertaining and involving. Also to Huber's credit, the handful of clips from Stanton's movies (Paris, Texas, Cisco Pike, Cool Hand Luke, The Straight Story, Alien, and others) feel fluidly integrated into the surrounding commentary, especially the lengthy extracts from the masterful Paris. Huber builds a bridge in between the fictional material of the Wenders movie and Stanton's off-camera life, perhaps to help offset the thinness of the dialogues with her subject. This is an interesting and admirable attempt to impart some profundity to the film.

Best of all, though, are the numerous musical interludes when Stanton (who often moonlights as a club singer) sits in his living room and does impromptu performances of songs like "Blue Bayou," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and "Hands on the Wheel" with the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar and harmonica. The same applies to an elegiac and poignant sequence late in the picture in which Kristofferson serenades a teary-eyed Stanton with his “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33.” These scenes are so joyous and ebullient that they suggest Huber would have been better off simply shooting a concert film: Harry Dean Stanton and Friends -- Unplugged.

Still, we feel a bit cheated. We long to gain the shining insight into the subject that is the hallmark of all great biographical documentaries. There are indeed flashes of illumination throughout the film, but they feel fragmented, fractured. We keep trying to pinpoint who Stanton is and he keeps slipping through our fingers. That was probably a deliberate decision on his part; throughout the movie, his enigmas remain intact.

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  • Released: 2012
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: If one were asked to choose a single actor who personifies the whole history and mythology of American movies, Harry Dean Stanton would be an ideal selection. By his own estimate, Stanton has appeared in around 200 motion pictures -- not as a little Doctor… (more)

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