One of cinema’s silent heroes, Harry Dean Stanton has become a staple ingredient of many a film-lover’s diet. The career of Hollywood’s most pre-eminent character actor is presented in Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012), an illuminating portrait of an enigma whose honesty and charisma seeps off the screen. Stanton makes it perfectly apparent that this isn’t going to be a confessional piece, yet Huber’s unobtrusive approach to his impenetrable Kentucky veneer reveals a man whose gentle demeanour and expressive visage masks one of independent American cinema’s most inspirational artists.
The one element of Stanton’s life that shines brightest through his mysterious persona is a deep-seated love of music. Taught by his father to “keep going straight ahead until you hit something”, it becomes hard to distinguish whether these musical intermissions are the punctuation marks in Stanton’s life or the driving force behind it. Yet, through these musical interludes we get the briefest of glimpses of the true Stanton, with his songs a hypnotic vessel into a tortured soul – far more revealing than any of the subsequent talking head interviews with his friends, family and former colleges.
Almost nihilistic in his honesty, Stanton’s mantra of “doing nothing” is perhaps a slight understatement considering that it comes from an actor with a résumé that extends well beyond 200 films. Here is a man whose professional methods are rather more complex than he would probably care to admit; yet, sadly, his methods remain carefully guarded. That said, he does openly admit to having no interest in stage acting, purely because it requires too much work, for too little pay and too small an audience. Whilst Huber intersperses Partly Fiction with interviews featuring such directing luminaries as David Lynch and Wim Wenders, it’s the cigarette-smoking, blues-singing Stanton that continually steals the show.
Eschewing the usual probing style of such biographical documentaries, Huber allows Stanton to feel comfortable and, as such, divulges far more through his relaxed way than any series of awkwardly personal interrogations could ever achieve. Shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey through a series of smoky, monochrome talking heads and moody nighttime hues, Partly Fiction is an impressionistic example of subtle documentary filmmaking, taking an intriguing subject and allowing it to accentuate its intriguing qualities by merely being there.
It’s all to easy for documentaries such as this to turn into simple hero-worshipping or disparaging windows into the fragility of stardom, yet here we have a fascinating and long overdue portrait of a chameleon who, through Huber’s beautifully visual profile, has become even more allusive and endearing. For fans of both the man and his art, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is essential viewing.
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.