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Notes on the New Harry Dean Stanton Documentary

On Friday, I drove into Los Angeles to catch a showing of Partly Fiction, a new documentary about Harry Dean Stanton, and was reminded just how much audiences in LA love losing their shit over celebrities and celebrity culture.
Sam McPheeters
Κείμενο Sam McPheeters

On Friday, I drove into LA to catch a showing of Partly Fiction, Sophie Huber's new documentary about Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton is 87 years old. I will be sad when he dies. But do I have the right to call him one of my favorite actors? I've only seen 13 of his films, less than 10 percent of his total output. Could there be—buried deep in his early westerns or crime capers—performances so terrible they negate his work in Alien, Escape From New York, and Repo Man?


Also, celebrities creep me out. Approaching the Nuart theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, I could make out the huge slab of David Lynch's face on the sidewalk out front. Inside the theater, I saw the place was crawling with faces from TV and movies. It was real work to avoid making eye contact with any of these people as I scurried for my popcorn.

Here is what's not creepy: LA audiences fawning over live celebrities. I love witnessing this phenomenon, and the Partly Fiction premiere did not disappoint. Stanton tottered up to introduce the film, and the room oozed hero worship. The onscreen version of Stanton mentioned losing Rebecca De Mornay to Tom Cruise, and the crowd sighed in sympathy. When he mentioned his roomie days with Jack Nicholson, everyone chuckled conspiratorially. When he hinted at multiple illegitimate kids, no one tsked, or rose to announce they were his son or daughter.

Several brief stills showed him in the Navy during WWII. As a young soldier, his face looked raw and unformed. He was born to be an old man.

Much of the documentary involves nothing more than head shots of Stanton singing old country songs from his living room couch. These close-ups were filmed with HD video, so every pore and burst capillary on his face is rendered in bright, perfect detail, like a massive Chuck Close portrait. I realized I'd never had such an opportunity to study an old man's face before, and I searched the screen for clues to how my own features will eventually decay. It took most of the film to figure out what was so disconcerting about these shots—his eyes are completely clear. He looks like an imposter wearing an old-man mask.

For a film that is essentially a lazily-paced clips show, there weren't that many clips: perhaps a dozen or so of his estimated 180 to 250 films, and nothing from his prolific TV work from the 50s and 60s. Much of the discussion centered around 1985’s Paris, Texas. At one point, director Wim Wenders discussed Stanton's reluctance to take on a leading man role, and someone yelled out, "Bullshit!" I felt a surge of mortification, then realized it was Stanton, heckling his own film. Wenders' giant, stern German head belabored the point. Stanton bellowed, "Wrong!"

Afterwards, filmmakers and subject gathered for a question and answer period. Q&As are one of the few structured formats where the lowest and highest rungs of Hollywood can interact. They always make me nervous. Sure enough, one man stood and haltingly called Stanton a hero, as if he were addressing one of the 9/11 firefighters. It was awkward. I thought back to a time when I was 13, at a comic convention, watching a young man explain to James Doohan (Star Trek's Scotty) how his performances had psychically affected the young man's mother. Are sci-fi fans, I wondered, more prone to delusional fits of love and rage?

One of the last questioners asked, "What are you most proud of?" "Paris, Texas," Stanton said without hesitation, then quickly added. "Oh, and Repo Man." A cheer went up, and I suddenly felt my own burst of delusional love, hoping against hope that, unlike the rest of us, Harry would never, ever, ever die.

Previously - Filming the Unfilmable