There’s something strange about Harry Dean Stanton. It’s something I wish I could neatly articulate, but as I sit here contemplating the life of someone with an enormous career and so little recognition, I’m struggling to really put this man into words.
If I had to lean in any particular direction, I’d say that Harry Dean Stanton is someone who could be described as hauntingly familiar, the kind of person whose face tells a story of a shared suffering we’re all familiar with, while at the same time holding some piece of the puzzle that we’re not aware of.
Harry is a complex talent. He’s someone who has worked at almost every level of the entertainment industry from stage to screen and blockbuster to art house flop. And yet, as easy as it is to write him off as some tortured soul seeking truth in his art, Harry is someone more complicated than that description allows. He’s someone who can’t be contained in a single sentence or even a single film, which is maybe the most brilliant phenomenon for someone who strongly believed that “there is no self.”
Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2013) is just one attempt at describing the impossible. It’s a mesmerizing collection of tangential interviews intercut with directors’ fond memories of working with Harry and snippets of our subject’s singing.
I can honestly say there’s nothing really like Huber’s attempt at creating a portrait. Partly Fiction feels less like an expose than it does some transient experience. This is something that might be lost to the casual viewer, but means all the more to someone who is enthralled by Harry’s life and his way of thinking, as the film seems to be more concerned with how Harry experiences moments rather than the logic behind them. The result is something that’s not sprinkled with clear detail or some shocking revelation that ties Harry’s life together. It’s something far more impressionistic.
This isn’t a surprising experience when you consider the relationship between Stanton and Huber. After knowing each other for over 20 years, Stanton agreed to appear in Huber’s film as more of a sign of their friendship than something he was interested in pouring his heart out over. Huber admits that there was never any precedent of the film being biographical in nature, nor was it was her intention to reveal anything spectacular about Harry. Instead, Partly Fiction is meant to be some record of what Harry was like behind the scenes and in the moment. It has no real intention in telling us anything, rather, it’s just here to focus on the passing moments of someone we’ve seen for so long but heard so little from.
As someone who inherently tries to ascribe meaning to something so personal, I can’t help but feel that there is some complexity to Harry that’s hinted at in Huber’s work but not explored fully. There are moments where Harry offhandedly shares fears of his, like his worry about how fast the planet is revolving or his concern for money when talking about the relationship he shares with his craft. These are moments that I can’t help but feel mean something in some bigger picture but, in the context of the film, have little development or purpose beyond serving as a non sequitur.
I think, at least in some way, I can say that something haunted Harry. Whether it’s these bizarre moments of anxiety or a passionate comment about his former relationship with actress Rebecca De Mornay (who he claims he lost to her role in 1983’s Risky Business), there is something that was pulling on Harry, causing him either to become the person he was meant to be or pushing him away from the youthful danger we see from him in films like Cisco Pike.
Partly Fiction won’t push in one way or another – this is just the rambling of someone who has seen the picture and is at least partially familiar with Harry’s body of work. I won’t encourage you to take anything out of Huber’s work – that’s not the intention. Instead, I will encourage you to see what is perhaps the most faithful and complete impression of a man who dedicated so much of his time to playing others for the sake of a laugh, a cry, or a scream.
There may be no self, but there was a Harry Dean Stanton. I’m sure of it.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
dir. Sophie Huber
Screens Saturday, 12/16, 11:00am @ Museum of Fine Arts
Also screens 12/27 & 12/30.
Part of the Ongoing Series: Harry Dean Stanton: Say Something True