Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cynicism, emotion, and Zen: Deceased Harry Dean Stanton

The best character actors always have memorable faces. Harry Dean Stanton's visage was perfection it went from a lean, rough-hewn cowpoke's mask to the sunken, weathered mug that made him instantly recognizable in all of his roles since the mid-Eighties.

The details of his youth are scarce (he wanted it that way, if the documentary Partly Fiction is any indication), but set him up for a career playing “average American cynic” parts. A native of Kentucky, he served in the Navy in WWII he was a company chef in the Battle of Okinawa (!).

He returned from the war and pursued his interest in performing through college and into several stage roles. His regular work as a supporting player on TV and in the movies began in earnest in the late Fifties and never stopped until he died over a week ago at 91.

Through the Sixties and Seventies, he carved out a place as a supporting performer, usually in Westerns and crime movies. Although no one knew his name at the time despite his close friend Jack Nicholson including it in graffiti on the sets of his films his no-nonsense demeanor and his memorable face found him playing heavies (he was the thinnest heavy around) and characters who get killed off rather quickly.

His career changed for good thanks to one role that of “Travis Henderson” in Wim Wenders' Paris Texas (1984), scripted by Sam Shepard. Wenders and Shepard gave Harry Dean his very first starring role at the “tender “age of 58. As it turned out, it was one of the few he ever got, but the film itself was good and he was so excellent in the role that his name finally became as familiar as his face.

The same year saw the release of Repo Man, the brilliantly off-beat comedy where Harry Dean played the coke-sniffing veteran repo man Bud. The combination of that brusque, cynical character (who had a mean way with a bat) and the quiet, directionless Travis established HDS as a sturdy presence in the ever-fickle movie industry.

From heavies to good guys, the one common thread in his movie work is that, like his friend Jack, Harry Dean was an indubitably American presence. His characters had seen it all, done most of it, and were at a slight remove from the over-stimulated culture we live in. He was effortlessly cool and his characters often reflected his own craggy charm and fascination with both country and Mexican music. 

Good character actors are always impressive because they lend a back story to even the most briefly seen characters, through their physical presence. HDS did that in every film he appeared in.

I saw Harry Dean in concert at the long gone (and much lamented) Bottom Line here in NYC. I attended the show almost on a lark, since I wasn't aware of Harry Dean's commitment to his music and just figured it would be a suitably odd evening.

By the show's end I was struck by two things: his evident love for the songs he performed (which were nearly all country and Mexican), and the amazing readings Harry Dean threw in as “interludes” between his musical performances. He read from Shepard's The Motel Chronicles (the source for Shepard's script for Paris, Texas). I was bowled over by his readings, which were stirring and very emotional.

Sadly he didn't do any complete audio books, but he did narrate (as the “older” Hunter S. Thompson) this audio version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Jim Jarmusch plays Raoul Duke, Maury Chaykin is Dr. Gonzo, with Harry Shearer among the other voices.

As he aged, Harry Dean evolved into the ultimate “senior hipster” used in the sense of the real cool folk of the past, not the faux hipsters of the present. He smoked and drank to his dying day (seemingly) and was none of the worse for it, as he had always been a spindly, unhealthy-looking guy who was ready to indulge (quietly, ever so quietly).

One of the most interesting juxtapositions is to view two recent (read: made in the last decade) documentaries about him. The full-length feature is Sophie Huber's Partly Fiction (2012).

Huber was hard-pressed to get Harry Dean to answer any of her questions. In the film, she recruits his friends David Lynch and Kris Kristofferson to ask him questions and reminisce, but it is only through filming him singing that she seems to get at the “real” Harry Dean. He opens up while singing, and then (and only then) is she able to get him to comment on his family life and his very busy career as a performer. 

A few years earlier, though, Harry Dean was far more cooperative with an interviewer for the DVD extra “Harry Zen Stanton,” made by Peter McCarthy for the 2005 DVD release of Repo Man (which McCarthy produced). Although he didn't offer any information about his private life, he did sum up his personal beliefs, which were indeed Zen-like but also heavily cynical about the activities of the human race. They also indicated that he was very well-read for “an old cowpoke.”

“… There's no answer to that. Don't you follow what I'm trying to say? Everybody wants an answer to why I did this, why all that happened. Ultimately there's no answer to it. Everything happens the way it's going happen, nobody's in charge, it's all gonna go down Iraq war, Napoleon, serial killers, wars… you never know what's going to happen next.

“We think we're in charge. Ten seconds from now, none of us in this room know what we're going to be thinking or saying. So who the fuck is in charge?”

As he talks to McCarthy, he does at first seem like a diehard cynic. But it becomes clear that he had read up on Zen Buddhism and various sciences:

“… It's an old Eastern concept. One guy phrased it, 'To realize you're nothing is wisdom, to realize you're everything is love.' Or pure intelligence, pure awareness. Ultimately that can't be defined in words. It's beyond words, it's beyond consciousness. It's a hard sell!”

McCarthy closes out the mini-doc with Harry Dean quoting the Tao Te Ching:

“If you don't realize your source/you stumble in confusion and sorrow./ If you realize where you come from/you naturally become tolerant/disinterested or attached, kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king./ Immersed in the wonder of the Tao/you can deal with whatever life brings you, and when death comes, you are ready.' Seeing everything as a meaningful whole… one connected whole.”

Perhaps that is what ultimately made Harry Dean such a cult hero in the last three decades. He was an individual who loved music and acting (in that order, it seemed) and knew “too much” about the petty squabbles and tediously predictable behavior that makes up our daily life.

For him, a good smoke, a potent drink, and some emotional music (punctuated by incarnating different characters in different films) was all that he needed.

One of the best tributes to Harry Dean was posted to the Net for his 91st birthday. The David Lynch/Twin Peaks fansite Lynchland got HDS to give them a list of his 15 favorite songs, and so they assembled a little “mix tape” for The Man (with a little vocal intro he provided).

The choices range from his beloved Mexican music (a Vicente Fernandez tune, HDS singing a Mexican-tinged piece from Ry Cooder's soundtrack for Paris, Texas) to folk (Joni's “Big Yellow Taxi,” some Dylan) to country (his friend Kris' “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Orbison's “Blue Bayou,” Robert Earl Keen's wonderful “The Road Goes On Forever,” Steve Goodman) to timeless (Fats Waller's “Gonna Sit Write Down...” and Johnny Cash singing Danny Boy”). It's quite an assortment of treasures, found here.

Harry Dean brightened up any film he was in, including “maverick” landmarks (like Two Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and classic genre pics (Alien, Escape from NY). He is one of several terrific scene-stealers in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1979).

The film is slightly schizophrenic: The performances and script follow the novel very closely, but Huston decided to “rev” up certain comedy sequences by making them farcical in tone (the total opposite of O’Connor’s deadpan mode), with composer Alex North’s sporadically goofy score making those scenes feel like they’d wandered in from a Hal Needham movie. Those misguided moments aside, the film is indeed another downbeat Huston gem.

One of the most enjoyably weird projects Harry Dean starred in (yes, one more starring role!) was the 1987 “Rip Van Winkle” episode of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola (who had worked with HDS on One From the Heart) and the most striking aspect of the show were sets designed by Eiko Ishioka that “breathed.” Very, very trippy entertainment for a show aimed at kids.

Altman’s underrated Fool for Love (1985) found Harry Dean as an older man who had a special relationship to the lead characters, played by Kim Basinger and Sam Shepard (who also wrote the play the film was based on). He was married to Barbara Mandrell in his mind…. [The thumbnail for the embed is blank, but the link works.]

David Lynch had a special connection to Harry Dean, both as a personal friend and as a filmmaker. HDS worked for him several times, with his biggest part coming in the mostly forgotten HBO anthology film Hotel Room (1993). Harry Dean plays an average Joe who is humiliated by his colleague (Freddie Jones) as he tries to avail himself of a hooker (the late, great Glenne Headly).

Harry Dean’s big final role was the starring turn in the forthcoming Lucky, but most folks reading this blog (who are surely Twin Peaks fans) saw him in Twin Peaks: the Return reprising his role from Fire Walk With Me.

His character was one of the many who simply disappeared during the series, but the scenes he was in were quite memorable and added to the unspoken themes of the series, which were aging and death. (Which I discussed in this piece on the blog.)

As good as he was in so many films, I would vote for his short turn in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as being one of his finest moments. He again does what a character actor needs to do: He appears only in a single scene, plays a character that he has imbued with a back story, and then steals away the film.

The reason he’s able to do that is because the scene he’s in is, in my opinion, the best scene in the picture, and the one that most clearly outlines what Scorsese, scripter Paul Schrader, and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis were trying to say about Jesus: that, even if he was entirely human, his believers would still cherish the concept of him being a deity.

Harry Dean’s Saul (also called Paul) is a preacher who has a gimmick: He speaks about the “resurrected Jesus.” When the real Jesus (Willem Dafoe) approaches Saul (in the dream-world in which he is able to live as a regular human being) and says that he, Saul, has made up a completely fake theology, Saul tells Jesus he is wrong and the people he preaches to *need* the story of the resurrected Jesus, whether or not it actually happened.

“I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed,” says Saul. When he is told point-blank by Jesus that he’s recounting a fake story, he replies, “My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful” than the real person, standing in front of him.

It’s a powerful and very well-written scene. For me it is the crux of the entire film, which is about the humanity of Christ, and has some beautifully rendered moments and some segments that land with a thud (as in Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the desert).

The scene is immaculately conceived and written, and it is indeed “sold” by Harry Dean, who plays Saul with an incredible conviction, and even pride in conveying a falsehood to his followers. It’s the moment where Scorsese most fully articulated the theme of the film.

To close out, I have to end on Harry Dean singing, since that seemed to be the thing he enjoyed the most in his final years. Here is the B-side of a single he released in 1993, a Mexican-tinged tune called “Across the Borderline.”

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