SXSW FILM 2013
By Linc Leifeste | March 12, 2013
Director: Sophie Huber
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, Deborah Harry
Harry Dean Stanton. Either that name packs a punch for you or it doesn’t, but if it doesn’t…well, this is a critique of the film not the reader, so I’ll just leave it there. The man, now 86 years old, is arguably our greatest living character actor, with IMDb listing his acting appearances at 184 (which is well short of the mark, according to the man himself). But quantity alone didn’t seal the deal, that was achieved through quality of performance and quality of films. A short list of the films Stanton has appeared in: Cool Hand Luke, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Alien, Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Pretty in Pink, The Last Tempation of Christ, Wild at Heart and The Avengers. I’ve long been aware of Stanton and long been a fan of his work, just the appearance of his craggy face always helping to at least momentary elevate any film for me. But what I realized as I was waiting for Sophie Huber’s new documentary to start rolling is that I knew next to nothing about the man himself. And after watching this captivating portrait of Stanton, I left the theater knowing little more about him than when I came in but even a bigger fan of the man’s body of work.
Sparingly but effectively interspersed throughout the documentary are short clips from some of Stanton’s film work as well as interviews with some of his key collaborators. The segment with David Lynch and Stanton sitting on Stanton’s couch smoking cigarettes while Lynch perfunctorily reads a list of biographical questions from a typed sheet is brilliant. Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard wax eloquent about Stanton while Debbie Harry reveals the gossipy tidbit that the two had a romantic or sexual relation at one time. But the appearance of Kris Kristofferson is probably the highlight. He’s being interviewed about Stanton when the man himself surprises him by walking in the room. You can see that the two men share a real bond and hold each other in highest regard as they reminisce about Stanton helping Kristofferson land his first starring role in Cisco Pike. At one point, Kristofferson performs his classic “He’s A Pilgrim” as a clearly moved Stanton watches, before Kristofferson reveals that Stanton was a big inspiration for the song. Afterward, in what struck me as a rare moment of candid honesty, Stanton reveals that music is his real love and he regrets never having pursued it professionally.
We don’t learn much about Stanton’s childhood or his parents, although it’s clear that there’s a lot of hurt there, but some interesting tidbits that drop along the way include that Stanton has never been married (although he proposed at least twice: “Two times that I remember”) but may have fathered children over the years (something he claims to not really have ever followed up on), that he once had a girlfriend that he helped land a role in a Tom Cruise film only to have her run off with Cruise, and that he was roommates with Jack Nicholson (who sadly didn’t participate in the documentary) for a couple of years around the time that Easy Rider was produced.
In the vein of the equally brilliant Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, Partly Fiction takes a low-key, bare bones approach to its subject, who makes it clear from the beginning that he has no interest in opening up about his life (“I don’t give anything away.”) Instead, the majority of his screen-time is split between his intensely moving vocal performances of stripped down standards (generally accompanied by someone’s off-screen strumming of acoustic guitar and his own harmonica playing) and long periods of silence as he stares at the screen seemingly contemplating how he can answer a question about his own life with the least possible detail. But both the musical performances and the silence speak volumes. This is a damaged man who has long ago withdrawn inward but has allowed his painful life experiences to reveal themselves through his onscreen performances and through the songs he sings.