Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction Review

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How do you examine the life of a performer with a career spanning over 200 films, especially someone as widely recognized and superbly enigmatic as Harry Dean Stanton? That is the question answered by filmmaker Sophie Huber in her film Partly Fiction.

Less a documentary and more of a philosophical examination of one of Hollywood’s greatest and greatly under appreciated performers, Partly Fiction does what every great biography strives to do, it reflects its subject. This film doesn’t provide an A to Z road map of a life and career, instead we get glimpses of Stanton’s character; his parent’s divorce, his military service, his taste in music, his feelings on acting and his past relationships. By piecing together a mosaic of interviews, songs, film footage and images from Stanton’s career, we get a sense of what it must be like to be in the presence of Stanton himself, doing shots of tequila and splitting a pack of Marlborough reds in between songs and stories.

Director Sophie Huber seems to know that she will get more out of her subject by pairing him with his friends. A short interview that has director David Lynch plowing through a series of personal questions, seems to garner larger, more telling responses than Huber would receive had she asked the questions herself. These pairings and interviews give insight into an actor that doesn’t seem to enjoy revealing too much, preferring to offer zen-like responses such as ‘do nothing’ and ‘there is no self’, adding a layer of simplistic philosophy to a performer who is known for portraying quiet and understated characters.

Partly Fiction spends a good amount of time revisiting and dissecting Stanton’s part in the Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas. The part of Travis, the mysterious stranger with a broken past, seems to strike parallels with Stanton’s own life as well has his onscreen mystique. The documentarians seem fascinated with Stanton as a reflection of the American character, making it easy to see him as a wanderer of the west, particularly when reflected on by writer/actor Sam Shephard, or when paired with scenes of Travis wandering the desert.

With a life and career as long and as varied as Harry Dean Stanton’s, there are some difficult moments in the film, to be sure. The story of his break up with actress Rebecca De Mornay, or the short discussion of the possibility of illegitimate children could be bitter pills to swallow, but we get the feeling that Stanton owns every facet of himself, even the unpleasant stuff. When he reminisces on his upbringing in Kentucky, it’s easy to see him as a frustrated country singer in the Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash mold, and when he sits with friend Kris Kristofferson, the comparison is made so much more clear. The romances and the tragedies of every character played are like country songs based on his own life experiences.

When Partly Fiction draws to a close, examining Stanton’s performance in Cisco Pike, we are left with the portrait of an artist, philosopher, musician and storyteller, but perhaps most of all, a vulnerable and private human being. A man who doesn’t have to overplay a part, but instead quietly illustrates every triumph and hardship with the lines on his face, bringing those experiences to life on the silver screen for all of us to see.

Grade: B

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction opens in Los Angeles at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre on┬áSeptember 13.

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Robert Walker
Robert Walker 152 posts

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado, and is creator of the comedy web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre. He loves horror films and comic books (American Vampire, Jonah Hex, The Flash, Planetary). Rob has been a Sherlockian since the age of ten, is a Dark Tower junky and believes that Indiana Jones is the greatest cinematic hero ever created. You can follow him on twitter at: @timidwerewolf and see his other writings and videos at robwalkerfilms.com