Karlovy Vary Review: Sophie Huber's Documentary 'Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction'

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by Jessica Kiang
July 7, 2013 7:23 PM
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An enigmatic and perhaps occasionally overly deferential documentary about one of the all-time great character actors, Sophie Huber’s “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” is slow out of the gate, but gently, ever so gently, builds to a thoughtful portrait of a thoughtful man. Stanton, while never less than amiable, is clearly not an easy subject -- “I’ve been doing this for 50 fucking years, being photographed and making movies. After a while I got tired of it.” -- in fact he states up front that he doesn’t like to give much away. And while many of the other interviewees talk about that quality of stillness and silence being one of his great strengths, it does mean he’s not the most forthcoming or garrulous of biographees. But it also lends the stories, when they haltingly come, added impact, whether about his carousing days with ex-housemate and longtime friend Jack Nicholson or when he’s sharing reminiscences with “Cisco Pike” co-star Kris Kristofferson.

In fact, initially Stanton is so reticent, with Huber only able to elicit monosyllabic, unrevealing answers about his childhood, for example, that she instead she finds a way in through his great unexploited talent and abiding interest: music. In stark black and white that lingers on his face (of which Sam Shepard memorably says “Harry’s strength is that he knows his face IS the story”) Stanton sings the songs he loves: “Blue Bayou," “Blue Moon," the theme song to “Paris Texas,” “Everybody’s Talking,” even “Danny Boy.” It’s a tactic Huber has to resort to rather too often to plug the silences, it feels like, but it does give us a sense of the emotional life of the man that the to-camera interview segments can’t generate. And the frequent musical interludes, along with acclaimed DP Seamus McGarvey's cinematography, lend the whole piece a more melancholic and impressionistic aura than its otherwise standard interview/clip/talking head format could lay claim to. 

But Stanton does get more chatty when he’s sharing the screen with someone, be it Kristofferson, David Lynch or the barflies at his longtime local bar. Indeed, for our money, Lynch, who gets the most Lynchian coffee-related introduction ever, is the film’s MVP, as his easy familiarity with Stanton (like when he gently points out they’ve worked together six times, four more than Stanton’s estimate of “twice”) means Stanton lets his guard down considerably. And so Lynch rattles through a bunch of cue-carded questions (perhaps ones Huber herself knew she wouldn’t get a lot out of?) and gets some surprising responses: Stanton was in the Navy and saw action in the battle of Okinawa; he’s been told two or there times he’s the father of a child, and while there’s one he’s “pretty sure is mine” he’s never really bonded with any of them, nor their mothers; but Rebecca De Mornay, of whom he still has pictures on display, had him “heartbroken” when she left him for Tom Cruise.

Huber is selective about the films she excerpts, as you’d have to be with a career that boasts 180+ credits, but the films she chooses are apropos: “Alien,” “The Missouri Breaks,” “The Straight Story,” “Repo Man,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Cisco Pike,” “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid,”(that last yielding a nice story about Bob Dylan), all contribute to reminding us just what a long and diverse career Stanton has enjoyed. But best of all is her repeated use of footage, sometimes whole scenes from “Paris, Texas,” Stanton’s indelible first leading man role; seeing him in his iconic suit and red baseball cap combo made us immediately schedule a rewatch. And director Wim Wenders has some interesting tales to tell of Stanton’s attacks of self-doubt about whether or not he’d be good enough to carry the film at all, having been almost institutionalized by his “character actor” label.

Mostly, though, we cut between a few choice talking heads: Debbie Harry, Sam Shepard, Stanton’s slightly creepily enthusiastic personal assistant, and Stanton himself, usually singing, but sometimes dispensing small pearls of his minimalist philosophy on acting (“play yourself”), on love (“love is when you’re not attached”) and on life (his father’s motto “go straight ahead till you hit something” being essentially boiled down to his own “do nothing.”) This last, however, the aforementioned PA, totally sycophantic about Stanton till now, forcefully calls “bullshit” and we’d have to agree. You don’t get the career longevity and the “actor’s actor” reputation Stanton enjoys from doing nothing, but we understand this, too, as part of his characteristic reserve.

It’s as though he innately knows that the danger of a biographical documentary like this is that it could potentially strip away too much of the mystery, or leave us overly familiar and perhaps therefore a little contemptuous of its subject. ‘Partly Fiction’ may sacrifice some comprehensiveness and some insight in avoiding these traps, but it gives us, after its slim 75-minute running time just enough to have us jonesing for more. And in that it’s a perfect encapsulation of Stanton’s often minimalist but crucial contribution to the films he’s worked on. One of the reasons he’s always such an appreciated presence is that he never gives us too much, of himself or of any of his characters, and therefore he never outstays his welcome. [B-]

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