On the transatlantic leg of the long journey from Berlin to Austin, I finally caught Seven Psychopaths, and here’s the thing: For all those remarkable gestalten scrambling across the screen trying to out-weirdo each other, none creep as deeply under the skin as the Quaker. He’s got no lines, he’s primarily seen from a considerable distance, he’s listed in the credits simply as “Man in Hat,” and he’s played, of course, by Harry Dean Stanton.
What comes across at least a bit in this trailer for Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is the way cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s alternating shots in grainy color and high-contrast black and white beautifully enrich each other. What doesn’t come across, what can’t come across in just over two minutes, is the intelligence of director Sophie Huber’s design—not just the way a choice snippet from an interview is placed next to a clip, which might then smoothly segue into a song, but the overall, underlying infrastructure of the doc. The centerpiece of the “astonishing career of the man who’s perhaps Hollywood’s pre-eminent post-war character actor,” as Neil Young‘s put it in the Hollywood Reporter, would have to be Paris, Texas (1984), Stanton’s first and, depending on how you define these things, probably only real leading role. And while that film’s certainly given its due, with Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard being consulted and all, it’s not the one Partly Fiction is meandering toward. That would be, oddly enough, Cisco Pike (1972), whose milieu and storyline—Stanton plays a junkie sidekick bandmate of Kris Kristofferson’s—seems to resonate with so many of the roles Stanton’s taken in well over 200 films in the nearly 60 years he’s been at it now. The range within Stanton’s niche, though, is wide, stretching from a tour de force monologue in The Missouri Breaks (1976) to the quietly moving final moments of The Straight Story (1999). Speaking of which, David Lynch’s interview with Stanton is, as you’d expect, grandly entertaining.
One more thing about that trailer. The song might raise a suspicion in some that a man getting on in years—Stanton will be 87 in July—is being exploited, but what becomes more than clear over the course of Partly Fiction, and what’s eventually confirmed by Stanton’s assistant, is that, for all the detours his personal life may have taken (losing Rebecca De Mornay to Tom Cruise, losing track of his kids, even losing track of the number of kids he may have sired), Harry Dean Stanton is still in complete charge of his persona.
Stanton appeared in Dillinger (1973), the directorial debut of John Milius, who’d already made a name for himself as a massively talented screenwriter, if for no other reason (though there were plenty) than that he’d given Clint Eastwood his signature “Do I feel lucky?” monologue in Dirty Harry (1971). He’d also seen his screenplays for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) evolve into films so far and away from his original vision that he’d resolve to direct Dillinger himself.
Watching Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa‘s documentary Milius, I found myself seated among strangers for whom the name is magic, for whom films such as Big Wednesday (1978) or Conan the Barbarian (1982) are personal milestones. I do not run with this tribe, as much as I admire the speech Milius gave Quint in Jaws (1975), as much as I appreciate that it was Milius who cracked the nut of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness so that it could eventually grow from George Lucas’s little 16mm Vietnam War project to become Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificently overblown epic Apocalypse Now (1979). And there’s no denying that Milius’s story is fascinating, beginning with the days at USC, one of only three film schools in the US at the time, forming those life-long friendships with Steven Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola et al, and creating that macho counter-counter-cultural persona that’d earn him accusations of fascism from the likes of Pauline Kael that he’d embrace and hammer into his own self-given epithet, “Zen fascist.” As it happens, a 2012 remake of Red Dawn (1984), the 1984 Soviet invasion fantasia that gave the 2003 operation to capture Saddam Hussein its name—only now with the North Koreans as the heavies—is just now limping into theaters in the UK.
Stylistically, Milius is a feature-length DVD extra, a format Sophie Huber so assiduously avoids in Partly Fiction, and as a matter of fact, Knutson and Figueroa have indeed made plenty such compilations for Kevin Smith, among others: clips, talking heads, slightly animated graphics, all cut tight to keep the story moving. But what a story.
And to call Penny Lane‘s Our Nixon a found footage documentary would be to barely scratch the surface; in short, what footage! Turns out, White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, and Deputy Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin were Super-8 hounds. They took their cameras everywhere and pointed them at everything—one of the better of many laughers: Pope Paul VI, surreptitiously filmed inside the Vatican from the hip at an off-kilter, sideways angle—all the while recording, on the one hand, a document of a not at all unsympathetic bond among young men on a mission, and of course, on the other, a damning portrait of a White House that persistently perceived itself as besieged by dastardly and conspiratorial enemies, even in the best of times. Even upon returning triumphant from the historical trip to China, Nixon can’t help but grouse that Henry Kissinger is claiming credit for the whole idea, evidently to some lovely conquered spoil who wasted no time in relaying Henry K’s brags to an Italian newspaper.
Nixon’s comments were, of course, recorded separate from the silent Super 8 footage—by none other than himself—and without the infamous tapes, it’s difficult to see how Lane and producer Brian Frye would have a film. Their matching of the “funny, mystifying, creepy and sad” soundtrack, as Lane describes the tapes to Mary Anderson Casavant in Filmmaker, to the often goofy yet just as often revealing home movie clippage is nothing short of inspired. Add playful tune choices such as Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” and Our Nixon almost becomes a strange sort of celebration—not of one of the outright weirdest presidencies in American history, naturally, but of the distance we believe we’ve put between it and ourselves. But there’d be no Our Nixon if Lane and Frye assumed we were foolish enough not to think on that one twice.