EIFF 2013: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Fire In The Night
Posted on Wednesday July 3, 2013, 12:42 by Stephen Carty in Edinburgh International Film Festival
Existing on the margins of Hollywood, Harry Dean Stanton – AKA, That Guy From That Thing – is arguably cinema’s greatest character actor. Having featured in more movies than he can count (IMDb lists 184, Stanton guesses “over 200, 250 maybe”), the seasoned journeyman has appeared in a number of genuine classics and collaborated with some of the best directors in the business, positioning him as a uniquely fascinating subject around whom to build a documentary.
It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction isn’t the revelatory, behind-the-curtains look you might be expecting. With Stanton advising early on that he doesn’t give much away, Sophie Huber’s talking heads-style doc enhances the beloved supporting player’s elusiveness as opposed to deconstructing it, leaving us with something that retains his mystery but short-changes us on interesting anecdotes. Okay, so there’s some anecdotal entertainment, with Kris Kristofferson offering an amusing story about Stanton and Bob Dylan ruining a crucial take on Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid when they went jogging. But ultimately there’s more screen time dedicated to Harry Dean crooning than to the sort of stories film fans would be interested in. Undoubtedly, the same fans will merely enjoy spending time with him – he’s just that sort of guy – but the perpetual bit-parter’s guarded, evasive approach proves undeniably frustrating at times.
It’s great to see David Lynch, who worked with Stanton on a number of projects, pop up to shoot the breeze and ask a series of potentially revealing questions, but the results are just as elusive and unsatisfying. “How would you describe yourself?” the Eraserhead man probes. “There is no self,” Stanton replies categorically. “What were your dreams as a child?” Lynch follows up, un-phased by the abstract nature of his former collaborator’s candour. “Nightmares.” Stanton counters. “How would you like to be remembered?” the surrealist filmmaker persists, openly amused by some of the responses he’s getting. “Doesn’t matter,” Stanton volleys straight back defiantly, as though there was no other answer possible.
Subsequently, it’s left to those around him to provide us with insight into the actor who lights up more than The X-Files’ Cancer Man. Despite a seemingly indifference to acting, his assistant reveals that Stanton works so tirelessly on scripts he can remember all his co-star’s lines too, while Lynch highlights his peerless ability to convince during the moments in between exchanges of dialogue. During observations like these, it’s easy to find yourself wishing that the star of Paris, Texas (his one leading role), had been more cooperative with the wealth of material he no doubt possesses. But then, when you stop and think about it, that’s probably what makes Harry Dean Stanton who he is.
Staying with documentaries, Fire In The Night wasn’t one of the most talked-about prospects when the line-up was announced, but it gathered some positive word-of-mouth as the festival unfolded – and rightly so. Harrowing, powerful and undeniably affecting, Anthony Wonke offers a sobering account of the infamous Piper Alpha tragedy that occurred back in 1988, where 167 men lost their lives on a North Sea oil rig after it exploded into flames due to an accidental gas leak. It was, and still is, the world’s worst offshore disaster.
Old, grainy footage paints a vivid portrait of life on the rig, while dramatic re-enactments help render the hellish, nightmarish catastrophe as it unfolded. Ultimately, however, it’s the testimony from survivors that proves most heart-wrenching, as each one bravely revisits the horrific night – some are talking about it for the first time – in order to share their memories. “It was a timebomb waiting to happen. And it happened,” one of them explains, while another recalls the horrifying experience where he momentarily had to choose between being burnt to death or drowning himself. Depicting the haunting nature of tragedy, the interviewees of Wonke’s thought-provoking disaster-doc illustrate how there are some things in life that you don’t ever recover from.