Review: “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction”

By Alan Mattli

Harry Dean Stanton_Partly FictionThe lyrics “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 problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home”, from which Swiss director Sophie Huber’s documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction takes its apt subtitle, have been enshrined in cinema history ever since Cybill Shepherd recited them to Robert De Niro’s nonplussed Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s crime drama classic Taxi Driver. Stanton, 87 years old at the time of writing, didn’t star in that film but he might as well have, him being one of those perennial supporting actors who stand at the edge of a shot, all but invisible to anyone who is not actively looking for them.

The song named “The Pilgrim” was written by Kris Kristofferson and, so he tells us in Partly Fiction, inspired by his illustrious band of spiritual brothers, who hung around late-1960s Los Angeles, working as actors by day and musicians at night, quietly redefining American popular culture; a group that included Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Jack Nicholson, Waylon Jennings, and, of course, Harry Dean Stanton. What sets Stanton apart from the gang, however, according to Kristofferson, is his utter disinterest in claiming the song for himself, in building up a myth about himself. “How would you like to be remembered?”, Huber asks in her Swiss-tinted English. “Don’t care”, he replies. Naturally, the upshot of this attitude is that in doing so, he has actually become a myth, a lone wolf, who seems reluctant to even open his mouth.

Accordingly, Partly Fiction is less a documentary about Stanton and his life and achievements – he has, as he puts it, “avoided success artfully” –, which include somewhere around 200 film credits, and more one about how he sees the world and the world sees him. David Lynch, who directed him in six movies, attributes a talent for “acting between lines of dialogue” to him; Wim Wenders recalls Stanton’s insecurity about playing the lead in Paris, Texas; an L. A. barkeeper, who has known him for 42 years, offers his take; Kristofferson relays the anecdote of Sam Peckinpah fuming over Stanton and Bob Dylan jogging into a sunset shot on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Someone even refers to him as a the “Forrest Gump of Hollywood”, as someone who runs into opportunities and befriends celebrities (Francis Ford Coppola, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando) without even trying – even though Stanton’s assistant/agent pointedly dismisses this notion.

Harry Dean Stanton_Partly Fiction 1

However, as intriguing as it is to see David Lynch swooning over a cup of coffee and afterwards conducting a mock interview with Stanton, it is much more beguiling to see Stanton himself talking to Huber, who, as a director, is quite clearly out of her depth. Her questions, which he often answers in less than five words, are of a sobering banality: was your family pleased with your success? Why don’t you want to talk about your mother and father? Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself? (“No”). The most amusing reaction Huber provokes with this line of inquiry is the cheeky meta observation “It’s all a movie, including this conversation”. Unsurprisingly, Partly Fiction works best when Stanton is given the time to express himself, to form his thoughts, to muse, even if his frequent musical intermezzos – his musical talent becomes obvious in his stunning rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” – do little more than stretch the whole affair to its 77-minute length.

Indeed, the film shines brightest when it silently embraces Stanton’s faintly nihilistic love for the futility of things. Here’s a man who decorates his home not only with pictures of him posing with Willie Nelson and Jack Nicholson but also images of the Milky Way with an arrow pointing at the approximate location of the Earth saying “You Are Here”. During a car ride home, he suddenly asks whether the world really crashes through space at 17,000 miles an hour and, upon receiving an affirmative answer, dryly observes: “And there’s nothing I can do about it”. When quoting a piece of zen philosophy he might have picked up from his regular phone calls with Marlon Brando, he explains that this was “buddhistic but I’m not a Buddhist”. “What are you?”, Huber asks. “Nothing”, comes the inevitably simple answer.

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It is moments like these that make up for an otherwise disappointingly bland film, which lacks any form of cinematic imagination. Most of the interviews are stylistically negligible variations on the infamous “talking heads” of television documentaries. Similarly, Partly Fiction is chained to a rigid structure that does not allow for narrative diversion, unlike other, more daring Swiss docs like, say, Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open. And for a film about an actor known for the sheer number of movies he’s starred in – even if its focus does not lie on his body of work –, Partly Fiction‘s repertoire of clips is almost ridiculously limited. Paris, Texas and Cisco Pike are understandably given the most screentime, considering the involvement of Wim Wenders (as well as Sam Shepard) and Kris Kristofferson, respectively; whereas the rest of his career seems constrained to short clips from Alien, Repo Man, The Straight Story, and Cool Hand Luke. For all intents and purposes, Partly Fiction is not a particularly successful film. But it does follow the late Roger Ebert’s famous Stanton-Walsh Rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh can be altogether bad”.

★★★½ (out of six)

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