CAPSULE: HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Huber

FEATURING: , , , Sam Shepard, ,

PLOT: An impressionistic pastiche covering the career of cult character actor Harry Dean Stanton, with terse interviews, conversations with collaborators, film clips, and lots of folksinging from the subject.

Still from Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Stanton is a weird dude. The fact that your subject is weird, however, doesn’t necessarily make your documentary weird. Also, the ratio of insight to folk singing here is unfavorable.

COMMENTS: Partly Fiction is a portrait of a man of few words who refuses to talk about certain topics, including, among other things, his relationship with his mother and father. His answers to the simplest questions can be frustratingly obtuse, and followed by awkward silences. “How would you describe yourself?” “As nothing. There is no self,” Stanton replies. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” Now, while on a very refined and abstract level I have some agreement with Stanton’s philosophical outlook, the fact is his clipped, koan-like answers don’t make for a great interview. He adopts an approach that might be described as “enlightened-aggressive”; although he surely realizes that the audience is looking for insights into Stanton the actor, not Stanton the folksinging guru, the craggy-faced icon is insistent on forcibly edifying viewers and shoving wisdom down their throats. He is far more interested in serenading us than in talking about his career, delivering oddly phrased versions of “Blue Moon,” “Blue Bayou,” and “Everybody’s Talking at Me” in a weak, wavering voice. (He turns out to be a better harmonica player than a crooner). To be fair, he does open up a little bit more as the doc continues, but he seems always guarded, always intent on preserving his enigma—we only rarely sense we are peeking through cracks in his facade, and then only when he chats with old friends.

To fill up the time when Stanton isn’t talking or singing, director Sophie Huber provides numerous films clips, including many classics from his iconic role as a wounded amnesiac who wanders out of the desert in Paris, Texas and as an amped-up speed-snorting repossesser in Repo Man, along with smaller parts in bigger movies like Cool Hand Luke and Alien. Huber also follows Stanton as he cruises the night, smoking cigarettes in the back seat as the crew ferries him about L.A., tailing him to Dan Tana’s for cocktails (tequila and cranberry juice) and a smoke break with the bartender (whom Stanton obviously knows well). Tributes from Wim Winders, Sam Shephard (who recommended Stanton for his breakthrough role in Paris, Texas), and most importantly David Lynch, who visits for a cup of coffee and with whom Stanton lets down his guard, add some additional meat, but the documentary still has trouble filling out its meager 75-minute running time. The impressionistic pastiche survives solely on Stanton’s (not inconsiderable) charisma. There’s not much insight to be had here, but Harry Dean does magnify his image as a grizzled, mystical outsider, and fans of that persona should eat it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You still leave impressed at the way Stanton fiercely protects the aura of mystery that makes him such an indelible onscreen presence.”–Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

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