Saturday, February 3, 2018

Down That Lonesome Road: Sophie Huber's Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)

Actor Harry Dean Stanton.

Back in 1984, I was scheduled to do a taped radio interview with actor Harry Dean Stanton from his hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival. Having been a character actor with memorable supporting parts in numerous films from Cool Hand Luke to The Rose, Stanton had just landed his first real starring role in Wim Wenders' laconic drama, Paris, Texas, where he played a lost soul estranged from his family who wanders out of the desert one day to reunite with them years after disappearing. The studio, 20th Century Fox, was eager under the circumstances to get Stanton plenty of publicity despite the fact that the actor wasn't the least bit comfortable being thrust into the spotlight. Despite his reluctance to be showered with attention, however, he could be thorny. I didn't help my cause that day by accidentally missing the initial press screening and having to attend the Festival one (which was taking place just before I was to go meet Stanton). Paris, Texas turned out to be over 2-1/2 hours long which meant I had to leave the film a half-hour early to make the interview in time. While I wasn't comfortable having to depart the picture early, I still felt confident enough to do the interview after what I had seen. But maybe what I shouldn't have done was tell Stanton that I had had to leave before the film ended because from the time we started rolling tape, he rolled back into a cocoon. Looking at me with complete indifference, he let me ask about fifty questions in ten minutes – questions went beyond Paris, Texas back through his earlier film career and even into his life in music – to which he provided cryptic one-word cryptic answers. Finally exasperated, I turned off the tape recorder and Harry Dean looked at me with the satisfied grin of someone who had just won a round of arm wrestling. As I looked up to say, "Well, that's it," he answered back quickly, "It sure is." He grabbed his jacket and departed the hotel room with such speed that it was if he wanted to leave no trace of ever having being there. For years, I was baffled that we hadn't managed to get past our great divide, but having recently caught up to Sophie Huber's lovely and satisfying documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, I came to recognize something I probably missed that day. (David Kidney first touched on the film for Critics at Large a few years back when he reviewed the soundtrack.) For an actor whose career lit up the background shadows of movies, being visible and being recognized came with certain obligations by those who wished to engage him. As Stanton never said a word, or looked into a camera lens, without making that moment matter, you were expected not to take those moments lightly either.

In describing this veteran character actor of over 200 movies, film critic Michael Sragow rightly points out that Stanton (who died at the age of 91 in 2017) never became a "character-actor star" like Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall, but rather "developed keener instincts for connecting with other players to create a solid grid of energy and feeling." Unlike Woody Allen's Zelig, a nobody who pops up visibly in a crowd of somebodies, Stanton was a somebody who emerged in the background to light a small flame of recognition that would burn into the viewer's memory. When Paul Newman's chain gang rebel Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke is put in solitary after receiving word of his mother's death, it's Stanton back in the barracks singing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" who fills the scene with poignancy. Stanton's drug-fueled desperation as Kris Kristofferson's burned-out musical pal in Cisco Pike became that picture's sputtering motor, which kept reminding Cisco of the counter-culture world he needed to abandon if he had any hope of surviving it. In cult movies like Repo Man, where Stanton possessed a exasperated visage that seemed eaten away by ravenous inertia, he played the car reprocessor as a feral philosopher king. In Straight Time, he displayed a desperate, unswerving loyalty to his jewel thief partner Dustin Hoffman, a loyalty that clouded his better judgement and made the bad ending to their crime feel even more painfully inevitable. In countless pictures, Stanton filled the screen as quiet men used to hiding who suddenly found themselves exposed and emotionally naked. What Huber does (with the help of crack cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) is bring a diffused light to those shaded and hidden corners of the lonely road that Stanton walked most of his life.

Director Sophie Huber and Harry Dean Stanton. (Photo: Michael Buckner)

Rather than a straightforward biography, though, Huber's film plays like a ballad that provides variations on Stanton's life. Although her questions touch on various details of it, such as his childhood in Kentucky in a deeply Christian home, his participation during the Battle of Okinawa, and his peripatetic love life, she isn't questing for answers. She is drawn to conjuring up moods instead so that we have to use our senses to piece together the fragments of his inner world. Often she will cut to a scene from a movie to illuminate a biographical point, but not to define some part of his personality. Many times in the middle of a story, Stanton will break into song, whether it's a sad Mexican standard or an American pop favourite like Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" (which Stanton says was inspired by actor Luke Askew and his heroin habit). Mostly Stanton is seen cloaking himself in silence – not to be coy, or to avoid being forthcoming, but to let the stillness of his body speak for him. Guided by a certain Zen perspective, Stanton believes in the void with an understanding that our true being comes out of nothingness. (For an actor used to being the background, you can easily see how this would be a useful philosophy.)

Huber lets Stanton set the mood and the pace of the picture. Even when she brings in director David Lynch, who playfully peppers Stanton with questions from a prepared sheet of paper, or Kris Kristofferson, who reminisces warmly with him about how Harry got him the lead role in Cisco Pike, or Debbie Harry, going into why she wrote a song about him ("I Want That Man") with a ticklish eroticism and then, surprisingly, coming to meet him, or Wim Wenders, who discusses with loving reflection the nuances Stanton brought to Paris, Texas, the anecdotes become more colour on a canvas than information we're chocking up to define the actor. In many ways, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction sets us up beautifully for John Carroll Lynch's extraordinary 2017 drama Lucky, an unassuming chamber work about a 90-year-old atheist loner (Stanton) who sees death in his rear-view mirror and it's beginning to scare him. The fact that it is Stanton's final film might bring the picture an added poignancy, but Lynch (who did his own fine character acting in Zodiac and The Founder) keeps the material dry and witty in its eccentricity. While I was watching it, my mind kept drifting back to David Lynch's The Straight Story, where Stanton appeared at the very end to meet his long-estranged brother who has traveled across the state to reconcile with him. I wondered if Lucky could be the same guy. (Lucky also has a beautifully acted scene between Stanton and Tom Skerritt discussing devastating war stories that is similar to another powerfully affecting scene in The Straight Story.) With a motley cast that ranges from that same David Lynch to former teen idol James Darren, Lucky reveals a deadpan minimalism that isn't devoid of emotional engagement in the way Jim Jarmusch's often are. Lucky possesses a luminous spareness.

If Harry Dean Stanton, despite his air of detachment, didn't possess such a wry and plucky spirit, Huber's documentary might be too vague and abstract, but her subject is endlessly fascinating. She is also a great listener. An actress herself, she sometimes lets the camera caress Stanton's worn face for threads of meaning in the road maps seemingly etched there. When we hear him singing the too-familiar "Danny Boy" in a voice that strips the song of any sentimental consideration, or the aching "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," she allows his somber voice to tell us that there are as many mysteries in art as there are in the lines of his face. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction doesn't give us answers to the enticing existential puzzles of a great character actor, but the pieces Huber provides lead to a compelling and unforgettable portrait of one. 

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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