Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is a fantastic bio-doc because, like its subject, it avoids the easy path. Most filmmakers who set out to capture the life of a living legend like Harry Dean Stanton would find some popular clips, get some predictable questions, organize it all chronologically, and let the movie make itself. Partly Fiction is a bio-doc that includes more footage of its subject singing than talking about his approach to acting. In fact, he opines that talking, pretty much about anything, is a waste of time. And yet this film says so much about why Harry Dean Stanton has become such a respected living legend that a traditional film would not. It’s a near-perfect portrait of an actor who never became a household name and yet has earned the admiration of generations of filmmakers.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear Partly Fiction isn’t going to be an easy interview piece. When asked about memories from his childhood, Stanton, framed beautifully by the great cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, Atonement, many more) offers that he’s not going to share personal information about his past, and then, in a moment that would fit perfectly in one of his many complex characters, clearly has a memory of his own that he chooses not to share. It’s unclear if he even understands the concept of an interview, but that’s what’s great about Harry. Who else could get away with answers like, “Ultimately, there’s no answer. It’s what happened. It what is.”?
So how does Huber approach such an enigmatic subject? Through his work, his singing, and the people who know and work with him. She carefully chooses a select few films on which to focus, spending the majority of the time on Stanton’s most notable leading role in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Wenders and writer Sam Shepard even appear in interviews to talk about the film and many clips are chosen of this true masterpiece, with an emphasis on Stanton’s unique approach to the character. It’s hard to tell how seriously to take Stanton. When he says that he didn’t work hard on the first part of the film because, well, his character didn’t speak and so he didn’t have to do anything, the impulse is to call bullshit and to know that he had a deep inner monologue going on in those scenes. Or maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he always does.
A large portion of Partly Fiction consists of Stanton singing songs, some familiar and some less so, often straight to camera. His emotionally raw, pure voice offers a window into how he approaches his art more than interview footage ever could. Even in a two-minute song, Stanton finds something in the lyrics or just the music to connect with emotionally. His characters often feel so in the moment because one senses that Stanton is always in the moment. At one point, he muses that he’s nervous about how fast the Earth is going around the sun although he admits “there’s nothing I can do about it.” In one sense, it sounds like something a Stanton character would say but it’s a perfect example of how this actor can slide in and out of iconic, unique roles. Just watching him hang out in front of the bar that he’s frequented for four decades feels like it could be a movie in itself.
Even the clip choices in Partly Fiction aren’t your standard fare. Most filmmakers tasked with a bio-doc of a man with over 250 credits would go for a shock-and-awe approach with as many clips as possible. Huber focuses on a select few films: Paris, Texas, Alien, The Straight Story, The Missouri Breaks, Repo Man, Cool Hand Luke, Cisco Pike, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And she chooses her interview subjects carefully, spending time with the people at Stanton’s watering hole, talking about the actor with Wenders, Shepard, Debbie Harry, and Kris Kristofferson, and, in one of my favorite documentary scenes in years, hanging out with Stanton and David Lynch as the two chain smoke and talk about their lives. I could watch David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton chain smoke and talk about their lives for HOURS. Seriously, IFC, make it a series – Smoking with Harry and David.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction could be accused of not really getting too in-depth with its subject matter but I would argue that Sophie Huber taps into the core of what makes Stanton such an effective actor better than most other documentarians could have ever imagined. He is a chameleon. He is an actor, a singer, and the kind of guy who has gone to the same dive bar for fifty years. He is beloved by fellow actors and yet blows off most questions of craft with the wave of an arm and a shrug. He was close friends with Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, David Lynch, and Kris Kristofferson and yet he’s never really received the praise he deserves as an actor. The best bio-docs find the same wavelength as their subject. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is a great bio-doc.