Film Review: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

This moody, soulful, music-drenched documentary on the great character actor uses movie clips, his singing, and shards of conversation to create its dark-hued portrait of zen survival. A real treat for those in the know.

When Sophie Huber’s downbeat and jazzy Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction works, it’s almost by happenstance, like catching a glimpse of something beautiful out of the corner of your eye. Of course, as with most works of art that seem to be beautiful accidents, it’s artfully crafted down to the smallest detail. Stanton himself, a half-irascible and half-gentle soul, strums this contradiction throughout. In the few instances where Huber gets him to talk acting, he shrugs like it were nothing and he just played himself. He’s telling the truth in part; there’s a core essence of him in every one of his 170-odd roles, most of them small or supporting. But the actor is also full of it; his assistant Logan Sparks quips to the camera that for all Stanton’s zen koan statements like “Do nothing,” he is a highly ambitious and dedicated performer. If he wasn’t, Sparks points out, he’d still be back in Kentucky.

Huber skips over a straight biography, but for a few asides. Stanton went into acting after serving in the Navy during World War II. He started off onstage but moved on to TV and the movies, explaining pragmatically that he didn’t like how much work theatre acting was and how little it paid. Early roles as cowpokes and the like played on his scrawny, Dust Bowl appearance and melancholic drawl. He worked his way up and around, befriending and working with everyone from Jack Nicholson to Kris Kristofferson. Later on, filmmakers from Wim Wenders to David Lynch, both of whom are here to sing Stanton’s praises, cast him in signature roles in The Straight Story and Paris, Texas. Huber craftily uses extensive sequences from both films, in which Stanton is able to draw deep wells of emotion and story out of little more than a look, to help explain the Stanton mystique.

Wenders and Lynch try to describe the magic that Stanton creates on camera for them. But it’s Paris, Texas writer Sam Shepard who puts it best. He points out that Stanton knows that his ragged face, with the sunken cheeks and those burning eyes, tells a story all on its own. Just by showing up onscreen and without saying a word, audiences are interested. It’s a trick that works for Huber’s film, which spends a lot of time just hanging around and waiting for him to open up. When he finally does, it’s usually worth it: particularly the asides from an unexpected womanizer about his relationships with Rebecca De Mornay (who he lost to Tom Cruise) and Debbie Harry (who wrote a song about him).

In between showing clips or following him to his local watering hole, all of it shot in smoky deep colors by the great Seamus McGarvey, Huber interjects numerous black-and-white sequences of Stanton singing. They’re all outstanding selections, and included in their entirety, ranging from a dusty Mexican corrido to a heart-meltingly gorgeous “Blue Bayou.” Each tells a story and by themselves they are worth the price of admission.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is by definition a limited-audience documentary. But with the breadth of talent and expansiveness of thought on display here, the last thing it is, in design or execution, is limited.