Thursday, September 26, 2013

Enigma of Harry

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2013) - Huber
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There are only a few actors I can think of whose faces alone speak volumes without uttering a word. Harry Dean Stanton possesses one of those. He always looks like hell. Having appeared in more than 200 feature films, even my Korean grandma recognizes his weathered face: he meowed into his demise in ALIEN, got to have Adrienne Barbeau all to himself in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, taught Emilio Estevez some codes to live by in REPO MAN, failed to seduce Warren Oates in TWO LANE BLACKTOP and made Nastasha Kinski and everyone else cry in PARIS, TEXAS.

Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber's portrayal of Harry Dean Stanton isn't exactly a revealing documentary per se. Because the 86-year old character actor, isn't really a talkative fella. Rather, most of the doc is filled with Stanton singing his favorite songs -- Country Westerns, Mexican songs and Danny Boy. He happens to be a very good singer. And PARTLY FICTION happens to be a great documentary on one of the great living American actors.

There is some background information revealed, but not that much: born in Kentucky, a war veteran who fought in the Battle of Okinawa and forever bachelor and womanizer. Debbie Harry wrote a song about him and hooked up with him once. Many of the questions are answered without further elaboration: Was his mother proud of him after he got famous? "Yes," (followed by long silence)

Huber lets Stanton's famous friends do the talking. David Lynch tells him how many movies they've done together because Harry doesn't remember ("Well, I'll tell you Harry!"). There is a funny bit with Lynch reading a list of questions (presumably Huber's) off of a piece of paper. "Have you ever been married?" "No. But I was really close once...," "Oh, the next question would have been, how did you meet your wife?"

In Partly Fiction, more than any other characters he's played, Stanton resembles Travis from Paris, Texas the most - a world-weary man with his gaze always fixed toward the yonder, deep in regret. This is confirmed by Wim Wenders, who got the veteran actor his first lead role in 1984. "He brought a lot of himself in the character. It's a brave thing to do to be that vulnerable."

Kris Kristofferson shows up and reminisces his first encounter with Stanton who recruited him and did a screen test with him in Cisco Pike. Harry chimes in, telling us how he held a broken bottle, just to intimidate the then young Kristofferson. Stanton regrets a little not to pursue his real love - music. "I avoided the success and fame...gracefully." He tells his friend with a wry smile. KK performs the song He's a Pilgrim in which the title of the doc originates. This is how the chorus goes:

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problems when he's stoned
He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Talking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home

Stanton's view on life is that of a zen Buddhist - a total detachment. He gets into a conversation with a driver about how the earth travels around the sun at 11,000 miles per hour while driving around Sunset Blvd at night. The mere thought of it makes him uneasy. When asked how he wants to be remembered by, he says, "Nothing." Life is a fleeting dream. Love is when you are not attached.

Only counterpoint to this comes from Stanton's spry personal assistant, Logan Sparks. According to him, the actor's nonchalance in his life and career is all bullshit. Sparks says that if Stanton didn't do anything, he would be still sitting in a rocking chair at home in Kentucky. He got to where he is now by hard work. That's why he is so well regarded and respected in Hollywood after all these years.

Gorgeously shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Avengers) in part monochrome and color, the scope of Partly Fiction feels very much like a passion project with everyone involved. We get to know the real Harry only as much as he wants us to know. His enigma is still intact. Huber as a fan, respects his subject enough not to overdo it. The result is still more than enough for us to appreciate Harry.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction gets a national US theatrical release on Sept. 27th.

*I attended the New York Premiere of the film with Stanton, Huber, McGarvey and producer Chiemi Karasawa present. Karasawa announced that there is a soundtrack coming out. I'm definitely getting that!

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at