Saturday, June 14, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2013) ***

NR, 77 min.
Director: Sophie Huber
Featuring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, Wim Wenders, Deborah Harry

Yesterday I reviewed “Repo Man”, the movie probably most responsible for my awareness of character actor Harry Dean Stanton. I had most likely seen him in many movies before I saw “Repo Man”, certainly in Ridley Scott’s “Alien”; but it was “Repo Man” that let me know that this was an actor to whom I must pay attention.

I later discovered that Roger Ebert had created a rule for his ongoing movie glossary called the Walsh-Stanton Rule, which simply stated that any movie containing a performance by either M. Emmet Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton couldn’t be all bad. This is a pretty steadfast rule; although character actors can’t always be choosers and there might be one or two that even Stanton’s presence wasn’t able to improve. For the most part, however, if Stanton is in it, you can bet it is going to be different and original.

The documentary “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” provides what so many cineastes who’ve watched the man work for so many years have long wanted, a portrait of the man himself. It’s an out of focus portrait. It’s incomplete. It’s missing entire periods of his life. This is not director Sophie Huber’s fault. It’s the only way HDS would have it, and it’s fitting since so much of the man’s appeal is his mystery.

The thing that surprised me most about this documentary is how much music is in it. Stanton sings so many songs throughout the film, you’d think it was about an aging rock or country star, rather than an actor. At one point Stanton admits his one regret in life was never pursuing a career in music. And he’s good too. If you know his work as an actor, you might not guess the man can sing. His voice belongs in a category closer to Kris Kristofferson’s than Garth Brooks, but he’s got talent. In fact, it was his friendship with Kristofferson that got Kristofferson his first acting role in “Cisco Pike”, in which they played former band mates.

Several of Stanton’s collaborators, including Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, David Lynch and Wim Wenders, appear in the movie to discuss Stanton’s acting career. This is a necessary move by the director, not because it’s standard documentary issue, but because talking to his co-workers might’ve been the only way to find out anything about Stanton’s craft. Stanton gives off the air that he’d rather just sit in a bar and have a drink for the camera or puff on a cigarette as talk about himself in any way.

Coming out of this film, you might think a fan would be disappointed with its content. There is very little background given about the man’s personal life or up bringing. I don’t believe he ever answers a question like, “What draws you to certain rolls?” If he did, his answer was nothing like any other actor has ever given. It is not a disappointment however, because even without any hard facts, it gives a perfectly clear picture of who this man is and what makes him tick. Stanton’s life might be partly fiction, but that’s the way he wants to live it.

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